Ministers today admitted embarrassment after a disastrous miscalculation by the Chief Whip led to a double defeat of the Government’s Bill to combat religious hatred.
Tony Blair failed to stay in the Commons to vote against a Lords’ amendment to water down a series of key clauses, which was then lost by a majority of just one.
In another humiliating blow to Mr Blair’s grip on his 65-seat Commons majority, 21 Labour rebels voted with Opposition MPs while at least 40 more were absent or abstained.
It soon emerged that Mr Blair had returned to Downing Street after being told by Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, that there was no point in staying for the vote after an earlier measure was lost by a majority of ten.
Mr Blair faced Tory jeers over the double defeat as he stood up in the House at Prime Minister’s Questions. Asked by David Cameron what confidence the country could have in his ability to pursue the rest of his ‘legacy’ agenda, he replied: “For the education vote . . . it’s probably a good idea if I turn up.”
Mr Cameron, buoyed by laughs and cheers on the benches behind him, turned his focus on Ms Armstrong: “I have noticed that the Labour Chief Whip is a little quieter then normal. I think she’s probably the first Chief Whip in history to put the Prime Minister in the frame for losing a key vote, which is an interesting career move to say the least.”
Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, admitted today that the Government had been taken by surprise. Asked if the Prime Minister’s non-attendance at the vote made it personally embarrassing, he told the BBC: “Well, yes, maybe.
“Nevertheless, we have got pretty tough legislation on the statute book—not as tough as we would have liked, but tough nevertheless.”
The narrow defeat means that the Bill will become law with a series of amendments passed by the Lords designed to safeguard freedom of speech and meet the concerns of campaigners such as the comedian Rowan Atkinson.
The amendments restricted the new offence of inciting religious hatred to “threatening” words and behaviour rather than a wider definition covering insults and abuse.
They also required the offence to be intentional and specified that proselytising, discussion, criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice would not be an offence. Ministers had urged the Commons to back a government compromise.
Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, denied suggestions that MPs’ opposition to the Bill had been designed to damage the Government.
“We were genuinely trying to improve this legislation and prevent the Government from making a big mistake,” he told the BBC.
“The Government was very foolish. They failed completely to read the mood of Parliament and once again showed a tendency to believe that they could simply push it through. They came unstuck and to that extent I think they were entirely the authors of their own misfortune. If they would only listen a little bit more.”
Last night’s reverses will have far-reaching consequences for Mr Blair and may hasten his departure from Downing Street. They will give heart to Labour rebels on the flagship Education and ID Cards Bills, making Mr Blair’s task of pushing through his reforms and ensuring his legacy even tougher.
To add insult to injury, George Galloway, the Respect MP expelled by Labour, voted for the Government while Mr Blair was absent.
Labour sources said last night that 20 to 25 Labour MPs had been dispatched to the Dunfermline and West Fife seat to campaign in next week’s by-election and were not recalled by whips because they thought the majority was secure. The revelation will increase pressure on Ms Armstrong, especially as Mr Blair is considering a Cabinet reshuffle.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was heavily watered down by 283 votes to 282 in the second most serious defeat for Mr Blair after the rejection of 90-days detention without trial last autumn. In an earlier vote, the Government was defeated on a technical measure by 288 votes to 278.
To a chorus of “resign” from Conservative MPs, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, told the Commons that he accepted its verdict and the Bill would become law. But it was stripped of measures to outlaw “abusive and insulting” language and behaviour as well as the crime of “recklessness” in actions that incite religious hatred.
Had Mr Blair not left and the crucial vote been tied, the final decision would have fallen to the Speaker, who by convention would be expected to vote with the Government.
Home Office sources last night put a brave face on events. An aide to Mr Clarke said: “I still think we can get prosecutions, but obviously it does raise the bar.”
Earlier, hundreds of protesters had gathered outside Parliament to complain about the legislation’s impact on freedom of expression.
Early in what was a passionate and often chaotic debate, Bob Spink, the veteran Tory MP for Castle Point, raised the treatment of the protestors by police in his statement to the Commons.
He said: “In the precincts of Parliament, the police have been deployed in extraordinary numbers to watch and to herd into a corner a peaceful group of Christians who are singing hymns.”
To cries of “shame!” from colleagues, he asked: “Is this restriction of people’s right to come to this place and peacefully demonstrate a good or a decent advert for our Parliament—or does it foretell how this Act might be used in future?”