Gordon Brown is preparing to water down his plan to double the maximum period for which suspected terrorists can be held without charge in an attempt to win all-party agreement for a higher limit. The Prime Minister, who has previously hinted at his support for the limit to be raised from 28 to 56 days, adopted a more conciliatory approach in a Commons statement yesterday.
"We believe we can establish a cross-party consensus," he said.
His significant change of tone on counter-terrorism came after Lord West of Spithead, the Security minister, told Radio 4 that he was not yet "fully convinced" the limit needed to be higher than 28 days. His words embarrassed Mr Brown and threatened to overshadow the Prime Minister's statement. An hour later, after a pre-arranged meeting with Mr Brown, Lord West rushed out a statement saying: "My feeling is, yes, we need more than 28 days." Downing Street dismissed Tory claims that the minister had been "leant on".
Later the former head of the Royal Navy explained: "Well, I haven't changed my position, I think being a simple sailor, not a politician, maybe I didn't chose my words well."
The Prime Minister will try to convince Parliament and the public that an extension to the 28-day maximum is needed. But he will abandon plans favoured by some allies to portray the Tories and Liberal Democrats as "soft on terrorism" if they do not support the measure. His predecessor, Tony Blair, accused the opposition of going soft when he sought to raise the limit from 14 to 90 days two years ago but was defeated in the Commons.
Mr Brown's new approach, which follows weeks of conflicting signals from Home Office ministers, reflects his desire to avoid a similar Commons setback. Some Labour MPs are threatening to vote against a 56-day maximum.
Allies say Mr Brown will try to build an all-party consensus in a new round of talks with the Tories and Liberal Democrats. He will first seek agreement in principle that the 28-day period might need to be raised in exceptional circumstances such as a complicated terrorist investigations.
If the parties agree, ministers will then discuss safeguards required for an extension to the 28-day limit.
Brown aides say a limit is needed as a backstop to prevent the police holding suspects indefinitely. But they dismiss warnings that the maximum would become the norm, and insist that the Prime Minister is open to negotiations on what the maximum should be.
The discussions will also cover plans to allow the police to question terrorist suspects after they have been charged and the possible use in terrorist trials of intercept evidence such as information from telephone tapping.
Critics may accuse Mr Brown of making a tactical retreat to head off a Commons defeat. David Cameron, the Tory leader, claimed he was playing politics over the maximum limit. "When it comes to this vital and important debate, the Government isn't so much concerned with the evidence as the politics," he said.
Conflicting signals from the Home Office
* Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary: "I believe the time is now right to consider the extension of pre-charge detention ... beyond the current limit of 28 days." (7 November)
* Tony McNulty, Security minister: "In some cases there may well be a need for police to go towards 56 days." (8 November)
* Lord West of Spithead Security minister: "I am not going to push for something that affects the liberty of the individual unless there is a real necessity. I still need to be fully convinced that we absolutely need more than 28 days." (Yesterday, 8.15 am)
Lord West: "Yes, we need more than 28 days. I ... believe that within the next two to three years, we will require more than that." (Yesterday, 9.30am)Reuse content