Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Blair's terror defeat

The provision that would allow police the power to detain terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge has been defeated by 322 votes to 291, with 49 Labour MPs rebelling. This is the first Commons defeat for the Blair regime and, as a historical footnote, the first time a Labour government defeat has ever been televised. It was the right decision in my view and one where the scale of this defeat has to be attributed to how badly-handled this was by the government.

First there was this extraordinary idea that it is the function of Parliament simply to rubber-stamp provisions in proposed legislation simply because the police declare it to be necessary. One could even argue that the extent to which various police chief constables, most notably Sir Ian Blair, have been mobilised in support of this bill is unconstitutional. MPs to their credit failed to be cowed by this and the nonsensical populism of being told the 'public' was behind it so they better fall into line. Those Labour, Conservative, Liberal and Nationalist MPs who voted this down rightly understood that it is Parliament, and not the police, who is the guardian of our liberties - that the police are competent to give advice on operational matters but are not competent to judge where the balance between security and liberty should lie.

Then there was the approach taken by Blair, staking so much of his personal authority on this and apparently over-ruling his Home Secretary who was until Monday still seeking a compromise with the opposition parties on this issue. It's too early to say what this means for Blair's future because conflict with his own party is something he clearly thrives on and is unlikely to stop doing it now. Yet if anything is likely to be his undoing, surely it is this uncompromising tendency? I'm not sure Blair understands the difference between leadership and management and it is the latter he's really not very good at. He has got away with it up to now because of the sheer size of his majorities in the last two Parliaments. But now he doesn't have this and would be wise to consider that while he may have not lost his appetite for white-knuckle confrontations with his own party, there is now clear evidence that they have.

There's also a Scottish angle which casts more light on the way Blair didn't bother to try and reach a consensus. Scotland's legal system has retained its independence since the Act of Union in 1707. Scotland's chief law officer, the Lord Advocate, agreed on the need to have the same period of detention north and south of the border for obvious reasons. But he did not agree that the uniform period should be 90 days, a point Charles Clarke desperately tried to avoid conceding at the dispatch-box today.

Best line of the evening so far: Paxman effectively asked David Davis, who are you to disagree with the police?

David Davis: "Well, with respect - I'm a Member of Parliament."

It's a sad day in some respects when you find yourself applauding a rightwing Tory because he has attacked a Labour government from the left and won. But it's a happy day for all of us who had begun to wonder whether the notion of Parliament as the guardian of our liberty wasn't just some quaint notion you'd find on the pages of an out of date textbook on the British constitution.

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