If you are in a hole, stop digging

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The Independent Online

In one respect, it was a turn-up for the books. A Prime Minister not exactly known for the collegiality of his decision-making yesterday opened that famous Downing Street door to the leaders of the two main opposition parties. And he wanted us to know about it: the cameras were there to record first Charles Kennedy, then Michael Howard, arriving by car and then being driven off after briefly answering reporters' questions.

In one respect, it was a turn-up for the books. A Prime Minister not exactly known for the collegiality of his decision-making yesterday opened that famous Downing Street door to the leaders of the two main opposition parties. And he wanted us to know about it: the cameras were there to record first Charles Kennedy, then Michael Howard, arriving by car and then being driven off after briefly answering reporters' questions.

This exercise in consultation, however, had a specific purpose, which was to get the Government out of a rather large political hole. What Tony Blair and his Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, wanted was cross-party agreement on anti-terrorist legislation that would support indefinite house arrest for terrorist suspects on the say-so of the Home Secretary alone. Without such agreement, the Home Secretary's proposals for amending the anti-terrorist laws risk ignominious defeat. With it, the Government would not only be guaranteed passage of the amendments, but would be better placed to withstand further criticism from the Law Lords.

It is to the credit of Mr Kennedy and Mr Howard that they did not succumb to the blandishments of this exceptionally persuasive Prime Minister. This first effort to form a repressive, anti-terrorist coalition failed. Mr Clarke left Downing Street making clear that he could not concede either on the key question of house arrest - euphemistically referred to as "a regime of control orders" - or on the use of phone-tap evidence in court.

The Government's problems began with the Law Lords' categorical ruling - on Mr Clarke's first day in the job - that indefinite detention without charge violated human rights safeguards and unlawfully discriminated against foreign nationals. The Home Secretary came back with proposals for "control orders" that would apply to foreign and British nationals alike. This time, the outcry from civil liberties groups and opposition politicians was, if anything, even louder. Quite rightly, they found it unacceptable that a politician should have the power to detain someone indefinitely. Having a judge decide, as Mr Kennedy said yesterday, is a "hallmark of British liberty".

It has taken a long time, but we welcome the fact that the opposition parties are behaving like an Opposition at least on this one issue. This is a principle on which no ground must be given. They must stick to their guns.

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