October 12, 2008 6:52 pm
An outbreak of political unity accompanied the UK government’s £400bn rescue package for banks last week. But elsewhere at Westminster, there is the prospect of conflict as usual. The battleground on Monday is the House of Lords vote on ministers’ plans to extend to 42 days the length of time terror suspects can be held without charge. Peers are expected to defeat the proposal resoundingly. Excellent. Gordon Brown should then abandon this policy which has come to symbolise so much of the erosion of civil liberties and personal freedoms under this Labour administration.
From the start, the proposed powers looked more a political fix than a thoughtful response to the genuine threat to UK security from international terrorism. They only squeaked through the Commons with the help of nine opposition Northern Irish MPs and after being so hedged with safeguards and qualifications that even the small band who believe the police should have longer to question suspected terrorists without charge think they are unworkable. The answer to the increasing complexity of investigating terrorist threats is not to extend detention but to improve intelligence and speed up police work.
An approach that cannot be justified on national security grounds now lacks even a political purpose. Back in June, when MPs voted for the bill, a political logic, however unpalatable, was at least discernible. Forcing through a measure with “42 days” in it somewhere enabled Mr Brown to paint opponents as soft on terrorism while he had the macho achievement of pushing through a detention limit longer than Tony Blair could manage. At the time, the prime minister’s stock was so low that concession or defeat might have hastened his departure.
That is not the case today. Insofar as it is any sort of victory, Mr Brown’s insistence that the Commons approve extended detention has already occurred. To overrule the Lords, he would have to use up significant political goodwill requiring MPs to vote for it again – and with no guarantee of success.
Moreover, the question of pre-charge detention is less critical to the prime minister’s own position than when he made the Commons vote a matter of personal authority four months ago. In the past few weeks, Mr Brown has made a successful conference speech, executed an audacious cabinet reshuffle and announced a bold and comprehensive plan to stabilise the UK banking system. His standing does not now depend on bending parliament to his will over this matter. A Lords defeat should be the last we hear of this contentious, damaging plan.
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