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Blair and Clarke split on 90-day detention

London Telegraph/George Jones and Brendan Carlin | November 4 2005

Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, were at odds yesterday over whether to back down in the face of growing opposition to the proposal for terror suspects to be held without charge for up to 90 days.

Although Mr Clarke has signalled his willingness to compromise on a shorter period, Mr Blair told the Cabinet that he still believed the police had put forward a "compelling" argument for the measure.

Mr Blair's decision to hold out for the full 90 days threatens to undermine Mr Clarke's efforts to strike a deal with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour rebels on a detention period longer than the current 14 days when the Terrorism Bill returns to the Commons on Tuesday.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that the Government faced a stiff fight to push through the Bill after it escaped a Commons defeat on another proposal, covering the glorification of terrorist acts, by just one vote.

Speaking during a visit to Manchester last night, Mr Blair left no doubt that he still hoped to secure Parliament's consent on the 90-day proposal.

Mr Blair said: "If the police say they need this power to detain terrorist suspects for 90 days then they should have this power.

"I think if these MPs who are against the plans spoke to their constituents about 90 days they would say they support it."

Tory, Liberal Democrat and rebel Labour MPs are likely to back an amendment proposed by David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, for the detention period to be doubled to 28 days.

Mr Clarke has refused to be pinned down on how long he thinks suspects should be detained if the 90-day limit was rejected, but said he wanted to "reach consensus on a figure beyond 14 days".

A No 10 spokesman refused to be drawn on whether Mr Blair would regard it as a resigning matter if he did not get his legislation.

Michael Howard, the outgoing Tory leader, said that he still wanted to reach agreement with the Government on the issue but said that the arguments put forward so far "do not withstand scrutiny".

But there was embarrassment for Tories and Liberal Democrats last night when it emerged that the Government survived a key vote on Wednesday night because nine Tories and two Liberal Democrats were absent from the Commons.

All the Tories had permission except Brian Binley, the MP for Northampton South, who admitted that he had switched off his mobile phone.

Vince Cable, the Liberal's Treasury spokesman, left the Commons just before the key vote to meet constituents.

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