Here we go again: another insecure Labour prime minister throws away political capital in a failed attempt to please nearly everyone. When he moved into No 10, Gordon Brown looked to the right and to the left of him, listened to the authoritarians and those of a liberal tendency, and decided to revive almost immediately the thorny issue of securing suspects without charge.
He had planned his move during the long, anguished, nerve- wracking wait for Tony Blair to depart, assuming he had hit upon a third way, one that would get most people on board. Not for the first time, a journey along the apparently comforting terrain of a third way threatens to end in an almighty crash.
When Tony Blair was defeated over his equally calculated attempt to allow suspects to be held for 90 days without charge, Britain did not suddenly become a more dangerous place. At no stage since have police officers despaired over the lack of time in which to question suspects. Instead, something close to the opposite has happened.
Since that act of nervy political posturing dressed up as messianic boldness, a whole range of figures otherwise close to Mr Blair have expressed their opposition, from the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, to that closest of close friends, Lord Falconer. In practical terms therefore, there was no compelling reason why the move had to be right at the top of Mr Brown's in- tray during his early Downing Street honeymoon. Still he went ahead. Now what we are witnessing are the final dregs of his political strategy that fell apart with the fiasco of the non-early election.
Last summer, when he was successfully portraying himself as the apolitical father of the nation, the debate over detaining suspects without charge must have seemed politically attractive. Probably, Mr Brown calculated that he could succeed where Mr Blair had failed, reinforcing another part of his pre-election strategy of appearing more Blairite than Mr Blair.
Right-wing newspapers would support him. The move was popular with voters. The Tories would look "soft" on terror and be in the "wrong position over this" (a favourite Brownite phrase in relation to the Conservatives and policy areas).
Mr Brown thought he had a way of pulling off the move, reassuring liberals that there would be more parliamentary scrutiny while wooing those who supported Mr Blair's stance in the first place. This was his third way. No doubt he assumed that, in the early days of his leadership, goodwill and a sense that he was less messianic in relation to these issues would be enough to help him prevail. The father of the nation would have made us safer while displaying a fresh concern for civil liberties.
The strategy reaches a dénouement in a different context as Labour slumps in the polls. The cock-ups over the early election blew apart the successes of the summer, reminding voters that Mr Brown was the leader of a political party who desperately wanted to win an election. The father of the nation had become, what he was and all leaders are, a highly partisan figure. No longer was he able to speak with an apolitical authority. He had been caught out.
The loss in support that followed means Labour MPs are less willing to bow to their leader and pay homage to his strategic calculations. They are right to be wary. I meet very few Labour MPs who are convinced this part of the anti-terror legislation is necessary. Even some cabinet ministers who are normally supportive of Mr Brown are privately opposed. Some of them avoid media interviews when the "42 days" issue is prominent because they cannot affect any public enthusiasm. Do not expect many cabinet ministers to be shouting from the rooftops.
Of course, a new prime minister is understandably intimidated by the responsibilities of protecting a country from terrorism. Any conversation with Mr Brown shows he takes seriously the complex questions involved in the balance between individual liberty and security. His speech on liberty delivered at the end of last year was not merely a gesture to appease liberals. He has read so many books on the issue, and quoted from quite a few of them in the speech, to suggest a genuine and deep interest in the topic.
But crude political calculations can mix easily with loftier thoughts. Like Mr Blair, Mr Brown has a tendency to use legislation because of its symbolic value, as if Parliament was little more than a newsroom. Both of them think all the time in terms of headlines, how things will be perceived.
After the Omagh bombing, Mr Blair rushed through new anti-terror legislation in order to appear strong. The laws were never used. There are endless examples in other fields. Blair's first Education Secretary, David Blunkett, once admitted to me that the Government's early proposals for schools could have been implemented without legislation. But laws were framed to show that education was a top priority.
Similarly, by the time foundation hospitals were stripped of some of their powers they could have been established under existing legislation. Instead new laws were passed to show the Government was "bold" about reform. In the summer, Mr Brown pressed for 42 days in order to appear strong even though there was no evidence that the extension would be of any practical use.
As a double whammy it looks as if the Government will lose the vote. If that happens Mr Brown would have tried to please everyone and ended pleasing no one, as Mr Blair managed to do on the much larger canvass of the war in Iraq. Mr Brown would be more culpable as he had no need to act, while, as I argued last week, Mr Blair was trapped either way the moment President Bush had decided to remove Saddam.
There is a way out for Mr Brown and he should move towards it with as much deftness as he can muster. Having realised there is no partisan gain to be made from the muddle, both Mr Brown and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, place emphasis now on the area of common agreement between the parties.
This is a more astute approach. There is consensus that at some time in the future it might be necessary, under unique circumstances, to extend the period a suspect is detained without charge. If I were Mr Brown I would work on a form of words that reflects that common position and drop any hope of making gains from his inept third way.
After which he should sit back and learn the lessons. He is not going to win the next election by travelling a too-clever-by-half third way on any policy area, especially one as highly charged as the balance between security and liberty. The era in which he plays the father of the nation is over. He needs to find another route very quickly to avoid getting lost altogether.Reuse content