Charles Clarke has the reputation of a bruiser, but he acts with careful cunning

He has announced the least he could get away with while claiming to accept the verdict of the law lords
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The Independent Online

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has the reputation of being a political brute. The opposite is the case. Mr Clarke can be a nimble-footed cabinet minister. Instead of bashing his opponents about, he tends to be conciliatory and receptive. As a result, the old bruiser receives their grateful plaudits without conceding much ground in terms of policy.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has the reputation of being a political brute. The opposite is the case. Mr Clarke can be a nimble-footed cabinet minister. Instead of bashing his opponents about, he tends to be conciliatory and receptive. As a result, the old bruiser receives their grateful plaudits without conceding much ground in terms of policy.

Not that he had much ground to stand on in relation to the ruling of the law lords on foreign suspects detained without trial. The judgment last December on the Government's policy was damning. Even more awkwardly for the Government, they couldn't all be accused credibly of being weak-kneed liberals, although that might have been one of David Blunkett's more flattering responses had he still been home secretary. Mr Clarke received the verdict within 48 hours of taking up the job. I am told that when he sought the views of senior legal advisers at the Home Office on the unequivocal ruling, one of them put it succinctly: "We are fucked".

Given such an unpromising starting point, Mr Clarke has risen to the immediate challenge. In the short term, and in a limited way, he has defused the intensity of the political row. He has done so in a way reminiscent of his approach to the introduction of top-up fees, the most controversial policy area during his stint as education secretary.

Here is the Clarke approach to a highly charged issue: first, he announces a new policy that addresses some of the opponents' concerns while retaining most elements of the original proposals. Then he calls for a national debate on the difficult choices facing the Government or, to be more precise, those facing him. Although he seeks a debate, he has already decided where he stands.

This is how the approach worked in relation to top-up fees. In the spring of 2003, Mr Clarke declared his support for the policy while hinting at significant concessions. He declared also that he understood the worries of opponents and that it was time for a national debate about the funding of universities. Contrary to his image of a political bruiser, he did not pick a fight, but won the arguments more subtly.

Similarly, yesterday, Mr Clarke announced that foreign terrorist suspects would be released from top security jails. This was the significant change from the original policy. At the same time, however, he insisted that the suspects should remain under continuous surveillance while agreements were negotiated to deport them. It is a policy that retains the same illiberal principles that underpinned the original approach. Mr Clarke, meanwhile, called for a national debate on the appropriate balance between national security and liberty, although he made clear to MPs that he'd already made up his mind. He would take any action he felt necessary to maintain national security.

This does not necessarily detract from Mr Clarke's willingness to engage in a wider debate even if he has decided his own position. In an era where some newspapers and parts of the BBC view politics with a contrived cynicism, we need more of Mr Clarke's debates rather than fewer of them.

The stealthy approach paid off in the Commons yesterday. After his statement, even the Liberal Democrats were expressing the hope that they would be able to co-operate with his new measures. This was in marked contrast to Mr Blunkett's appearances at the despatch box when liberal minded MPs were usually spluttering with rage.

But Mr Clarke had not conceded a great deal on the substance of the matter. The law lords' judgment that the Government was violating the European Convention on Human Rights had left Mr Clarke with little choice but to move the uncharged suspects out of their cells. There is a limit to the number of times ministers can hail their radical incorporation of the European Convention into British law while seeking to ignore the practical consequences. Still Mr Clarke does not exclude the possibility of opting out of the convention in the near future.

In addition, British citizens are being included in the changes after the law lords' ruling that the current measures were discriminatory. This is a bizarre twist. The law lords are worried about illiberal measures against foreign suspects, so Mr Clarke applies the same criteria to British citizens so that everyone can be treated illiberally. As for the broader principle, Mr Clarke continues to insist that charging the alleged terrorists would endanger sources and expose techniques for gathering intelligence.

Mr Clarke's justification is less convincing after the sweeping failures of the intelligence agencies over Iraq. Why should normal judicial procedures be brushed aside on the basis of speculative intelligence that has proven to be so inaccurate in the past? Mr Clarke needs to be nimble footed on several fronts. At the very least, he must encourage greater co-operation between the security services and the police to compile evidence that would be admissible in a court.

Already Mr Clarke has made waves as Home Secretary. On his introductory statement relating to ID cards, he went out of his way to recognise some of the problems associated with the policy while declaring his support for it (another example of the Clarke approach I referred to earlier). More daringly, he rejected calls from some newspapers to give homeowners new powers against burglars, although Mr Blair had indicated his support for tougher measures.

Clarke was helped in this by the fact that Blair's old friend Lord Falconer had already pointed out that the existing laws were adequate. Even so, Clarke could have mistakenly sought favour with Downing Street by echoing Mr Blair's populist and panicky response to a newspaper campaign.

He has had some practice in this. After Mr Blair sought a headline by proposing that drunken yobs should be dragged to a cash machine to pay on- the-spot fines, it was Mr Clarke who explained on Newsnight that this was really a metaphor for the Government's approach. He said it without laughing.

Mr Clarke will do his future ambitions no harm at all by occasionally standing up to the wilder proposals pressed on him from a nervy Downing Street. He was starting to do so at the Department for Education when he resisted pressure to give schools more powers to select pupils. The Home Office comes under even greater pressure to come up with ill- thought through proposals that outwit the Tories or appease the media.

Before Mr Clarke was made Home Secretary, a senior minister suggested to me that the only significant divide in the Cabinet was the one between liberals and authoritarians. Mr Clarke was cited as one of the liberals. I believe this to be the case. Even so, we should not be too disarmed in this particular instance. Detention without trial is replaced by house arrest without trial. Mr Clarke has announced the least he could get away with while claiming to accept the verdict of the law lords.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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