Why did Parliament sit through the night debating new anti-terror laws for more than 30 hours with suspects on the brink of enjoying freedom? Parliamentary Carrespondent Rob Merrick explains.

WE have all left important things to the last minute and missed the deadline for paying a gas bill, or maybe we've posted granny's birthday card too late.

But how did Tony Blair end up in the extraordinary position where allegedly dangerous terrorists were on the brink of complete freedom because he left it too late to pass a new law?

It allowed us to enjoy a few days (and a night) of entertaining drama at Westminster, where Fridays are normally as sleepy as a hereditary peer after a fulsome dinner.

However, the more serious side to the issue was the al Qaida suspects who emerged blinking into the spring sunlight yesterday, after more than three years in Belmarsh Prison.

Their draconian bail conditions - tagging, no telephone, no Internet, no unapproved visitors - mean they almost certainly do not pose a threat at the moment.

But, without the passing of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill or renewal of the existing powers that run out on Monday, they would be free to go to the pub or the football.

So what went wrong? First, it was an almighty shock to the Government when the law lords, in December, ruled that existing anti-terror laws - allowing internment of foreign suspects - were illegal.

It left ministers scrambling for a solution before the powers lapsed. Hence, the Bill was only put before MPs two weeks ago - allowing ludicrously little time for debate and scrutiny.

Then fatally thrown into the mix was the looming General Election, pencilled - no, inked - in for May 5.

It means everything is seen through the prism of the search for votes.

That led to Michael Howard's extraordinary claim that the prime minister wanted the Bill to fail so he could paint the Tories as "soft on terror".

Can politics really get that dirty?

Is that why Mr Blair rejected the change to his Bill days ago by rejecting the apparently reasonable "sunset clause", under which it would expire after 12 months, to be replaced by something better?

On the face of it, the allegation appears ludicrous. Surely, headlines screaming "Terrorist Chaos!" look terrible for the Government, which automatically gets the blame?

And how many people could believe Michael Howard, of all people, is soft on terror? How many people will switch to Labour because they don't trust the Tories on security?

The answer must be very few. Also, Labour's problem is its disillusioned core vote staying at home. They won't be inspired to head to the ballot box by a row over terror.

And yet there is a gleam in Mr Blair's eye when he insists the country backs him. He knows security beats civil liberties every time.

He believes the Tories were boxed in.

Then there was Charles Clarke's, frankly ludicrous, claim that terrorists would move to Britain if there was a sunset clause. As if Osama bin Laden is watching Sky News in his cave.

Tony Blair is a politician to his fingertips. We went to the wire, not because it's hard to fight the new terror threat - although it is - but because he thinks the whole thing was a vote winner.