Monday, June 09, 2008

42 is not the answer

A little later than usual, but here's my weekend column from the Journal focusing on the 42-day detention issue and what it could mean for Gordon Brown.


There are times in politics when staging a confrontation with one’s backbenchers can be a beneficial exercise for a Prime Minister seeking to demonstrate the smack of firm leadership.

One example that springs to mind from the Tony Blair years was the row over cuts in disability benefits in 1998.

The sums involved amounted to about £60m – peanuts in public expenditure terms - but it was not the money that was important but the principle.

For Mr Blair, it was all about sending a wider message to the public that this was a “conviction government” that would not be messed around by its backbenchers as John Major’s was.

But there are other times in the lifetime of a government when backbench rebellions are needed like a hole in the head, and for Gordon Brown, such a time is now.

Hard on the heels of the 10p tax fiasco, the local election debacle, and the Crewe and Nantwich cataclysm, comes another giant-sized banana skin in the shape of the row over 42-day detention.

The plan to lock-up terror suspects without charge for six weeks is not, we are assured, being treated as an issue of confidence, and as such Mr Brown will not automatically resign if defeated.

But be that as it may, if he does indeed lose next week’s vote, it will be seen as further proof that he has lost control not just of the political agenda but of his own party.

The arguments for and against the extension of the time limit from the current 28 days to 42 days to counter the terrorist threat have been well-rehearsed.

In summary, the police, led by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, say it is needed, while the legal profession, personified by the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, disagrees.

In an effort to placate backbenchers, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has made clear that the proposed new powers would only be used in “grave and exceptional circumstances.”

But although some Labour MPs have been won over, others remain unconvinced, and up to 40 could still rebel when the vote takes place on Wednesday.

There are doubtless good “strong government” arguments for Mr Brown not to give way to the rebels’ demands at this late stage, particularly in the context of other recent U-turns.

The government may have no real alternative but to back down on the abolition of the 10p tax rate and the proposed fuel tax increases on gas-guzzling cars – but it has not exactly enhanced the Prime Minister’s crumbling authority.

That said, there are several reasons why I think Mr Brown may have made a strategic mistake in pinning his colours so firmly to the mast on 42-day detention.

In my view, it is quite simply the wrong issue on which to make what, for him, could turn out to be the political equivalent of Custer’s Last Stand.

Why do I say this? Well, firstly, because it’s exactly the kind of thing that Mr Blair would have done.

The most telling criticism of Mr Brown that I have read in the wake of Crewe and Nantwich was from a voter who said: “We thought he was going to be different from Blair, but he’s just the same.”

That voter was speaking for millions who wanted change after the Blair years, and looked to Mr Brown to provide it.

On peripheral issues such as cannabis and casinos, he did – but on all the big questions such as tax, public service reform and counter-terrorism, there has been scarcely any deviation from the Blair agenda.

Secondly, the government’s stance on 42-day detention reeks of more of the kind of short-term tactical positioning that has been so damaging to Mr Brown over the past year.

For all I know, the Prime Minister may passionately believe in the idea deep in his heart – but the suspicion among the public is that he is just doing it to make the Tories look “soft on terror.”

There was a time when this sort of thing was regarded as clever politics, but an increasingly sophisticated electorate now sees straight through it.

No doubt Mr Brown also thought that he was being clever abolishing the 10p tax rate so he could shoot the Tory fox by cutting the standard rate from 22p to 20p. The public begged to differ.

Another reason why 42 days is the wrong issue on which to take a stand on is that the Labour Party by and large hates the idea – and this is the wrong time for Mr Brown to have a row with them.

Any immediate threat to his position will come not from the electorate as a whole but from his own MPs, and this is the constituency he currently needs to shore up.

Finally, the 42-day plan will mean guaranteed Parliamentary trench warfare throughout the remainder of the current session.

Even if it scrapes through on Wednesday, the House of Lords will certainly reject the plan and send it back to the Commons, meaning the row is set to rumble on all summer.

Over the past seven or eight months, the papers have been full of advice for Mr Brown on how he can relaunch or rescue his troubled premiership. I myself have written one or two columns along that theme.

In all that time, the best advice I have seen has come from those commentators who have advised him to stop worrying about being popular and do something radical that he really believes in.

As I have pointed out, in so doing, he might even discover that elusive “big idea” that gives some reason for his government’s continued existence - or at worst, something good to remember it by.

Does he really want to go down in history as the man who abolished part of Magna Carta? I think not.

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Toque said...

You wanted a conviction politician as PM, and you got him.

Unfortunately his convictions are not shared by the rest of the country.

Every piece of legislation his government passes should just be struck from the record because he has no mandate to govern.

MorrisOx said...

A brilliantly eloquent exposition, Paul.

What little vestigial respect I have for Brown dies if this ghastly measure is passed.

An appalling attack on hard-won liberty and a dismal irrelevance in the 'fight' against terrorism. How is this man better than Blair?

Anonymous said...

not all the police seem to want 42 days..