British Education Secretary Charles Clarke
AP
British Education Secretary Charles Clarke, left, opens the debate in the House of Commons with Prime Minister Tony Blair sitting at his side in London on Tuesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/27/2004 9:14:35 PM ET 2004-01-28T02:14:35

Britain’s Tony Blair narrowly averted humiliation in a key parliamentary vote Tuesday before apparently escaping  a second immediate threat to his six-year rule from a judge probing the suicide of a top Iraq weapons expert.

After a frantic day of arm-twisting and trading over the divisive education bill, Blair scraped by with a 316-311 victory in the House of Commons vote.

The British pound, which had shown signs of weakness ahead of the vote, briefly rallied on the foreign exchange markets, but political analysts said the narrowness of the victory was likely to dent Blair’s authority.

The tiny margin of victory — his 160-seat majority reduced to just five votes — showed how high feelings within the left-leaning Labour party had been running over plans by the centrist leader to charge students more for higher education.

“Clearly, Blair’s authority in the party, although not smashed, has shown its limits,” said Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde.

U.S. and Britain“They have had to pull out all the stops just to scrape through,” he told Reuters. “The days when Tony Blair can just announce polices and get them through is over.”

Indeed Labour sources were quick to make it clear that it was not Blair but his finance minister and rival for power Gordon Brown who had won the day — ensuring no letup in the heat for a 50-year-old leader whose haggard appearance belies the landslide that catapulted him to power in 1997.

“That is an utter humiliation for the government,” said opposition Conservative Tim Yeo.

‘Week from hell’
Defeat over university fees would have marked Blair’s first major loss in Parliament.

“We only needed three more votes. ... This is no victory for the government,” Labour parliamentarian Lynne Jones said.

Nor are Blair’s troubles over during what the British press have dubbed his “week from hell.”

On Wednesday, he faces his second big test in a report by a top judge, Lord Hutton, into the death of the nation’s top Iraq weapons expert.

Scientist David Kelly slashed his wrist last July after being named as the source for a report that Blair’s team “sexed up” intelligence about Iraqi weapons to make its case for war.

Hutton’s inquiry raised fundamental questions about how the government handled intelligence prior to the war and whether it exposed Kelly to public humiliation for political ends.

By the time of Tuesday’s vote, Blair was expected to know what Hutton has to say, having received a copy of his report a day in advance.

Britain’s Sun tabloid reported Wednesday it had been leaked a copy  of the judge’s report into Kelly’s suicide and that it appeared to exonerate Blair.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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