A chance for the Tories to stand on principle

Not even when the IRA came close to wiping out the government did the Tories consider ID cards

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It was the Queen's 50th speech to Parliament since she began her reign. So far, she has only missed the 1959 and 1963 state openings. I have seen and heard 29 of them. Even the best are spectacularly unmemorable. But as more verbiage is stuffed into her mouth by legislatively incontinent ministers, I am beginning to wonder whether we shouldn't confine such state opening speeches to those immediately following a general election. Certainly the many Londoners disrupted by the traffic chaos around Westminster would probably agree.

It was the Queen's 50th speech to Parliament since she began her reign. So far, she has only missed the 1959 and 1963 state openings. I have seen and heard 29 of them. Even the best are spectacularly unmemorable. But as more verbiage is stuffed into her mouth by legislatively incontinent ministers, I am beginning to wonder whether we shouldn't confine such state opening speeches to those immediately following a general election. Certainly the many Londoners disrupted by the traffic chaos around Westminster would probably agree.

Though supposedly "gracious", this was a speech read out like a supermarket shopping list. Her Majesty might as well have translated it as: "Oh dear, my Home Secretary says we've run out of ASBOs (antisocial behaviour orders) and tells me my Government will be ordering some more. But he also says I must announce the availability in eight years' time of a new product called "ID cards", which will prove to be the last word in security. Everyone will be buying them voluntarily so that one day I might even announce their compulsion - but not yet."

The truth is that this is now a fag-end Parliament with much of the promised legislation unlikely to reach the statute book this side of the general election, if it is held on 5 May. So the whole occasion yesterday was a charade. Little - not even the identity cards - will have much more than a momentary, eye-catching effect in the discussions tonight in the Dog and Duck. Most voters will give a weary sigh at the prospect of another raft of meaningless legislation that looks simply like more of the same.

Before yesterday's announcements, since 1997, this government has already enacted 27 separate pieces of crime related legislation. A further seven, some merely in draft form, are promised in the forthcoming session. But as symbolism, it sounds good - especially from a Home Secretary who looks far tougher than those wishy-washy Tory home secretaries like Willie Whitelaw or Douglas Hurd. But security, terrorism, crime and punishment - usually the Tory war-cries - are deemed according to focus group evidence to be what the punters want. The trouble is that few voters actually believe any of the levers of government are likely to work. Crime is supposed to be down, according to the Government, by 30 per cent. But few people trust these raw statistics.

If these measures were not in the Government's programme, they would once have been the centrepieces of a Tory election alternative. But the Tories' clothes have clearly been stolen. Frankly, the Tories might as well let Labour have them for all the good they are likely to do. There surely cannot be a single power the Government actually needs to stop terrorists and criminals - insofar as that is possible anyway - that it does not possess already.

Our politics have been reduced to which party can do the same thing best. For the party in opposition, this presents a particular difficulty, unless they remain guided by their philosophy. Never once during the IRA campaign in the 1980s or after the Brighton bomb, which was the nearest this country ever came to having the government wiped out, did the Tories consider, for more than a nanosecond, introducing ID cards or restricting trial by jury (beyond the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland). They were bold and brave in such resistance - reminding us that it was they who were elected in 1951 on a pledge to abolish the wartime equivalent of identity cards.

Identity cards cannot seriously be of any use in tackling whatever threat is currently posed by terrorism. If they were, then the Home Secretary is surely already in dereliction of his duty for not introducing them forthwith. Which is why they are no more than window dressing. Tories should have none of them and say so. Maybe that stand might not win new votes in May - if the YouGov poll for Sky News is to be believed, 70 per cent of the public are in favour of them. If people are really moved to vote for them, let Mr Blunkett be their proponent. But come the eventual day of reckoning - eight years down the track - I suspect that a poll tax-style revolt over the likely cost and potential for government misuse might soon change that.

It was significant that in his Commons response to the Queen's Speech, unless I drifted off at any stage, Michael Howard did not allow the words "identity cards" to cross his lips. Is he trying to tell us something? If so, let him spell out what he meant by this omission. Certainly, his shadow Home Affairs spokesman, David Davis, who is sometimes forced to talk on Mr Blunkett's tough ground, nevertheless has a respectable libertarian streak.

Historic rights such as trial by jury, which have been under attack by this government, have worried Mr Davis. He is well placed, from his reservations in the recent past, to head a principled opposition to identity cards. And if he should ever himself be the leader of the opposition - which could occur at the time they are about to be introduced - he might reap the electoral benefit of principled Tory opposition.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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