Leading article: Brown must show his mettle


The receding credibility of Tony Blair's government faces yet another set of stiff parliamentary tests this week. After years in which the sharp blade of accountability to the House of Commons cut like a feather, the Prime Minister now faces robust - and democratically healthy - resistance to his legislative programme. This week, the country, as represented in Parliament, faces an important choice. Two votes, on identity cards and on outlawing the "glorification" of terrorism, will define the balance of civil liberties and state power.

Those votes take place in the wake of the Dunfermline by-election, in which the voters sent a message of discontent not just to Mr Blair but to his presumed successor, Gordon Brown. Do not believe the Labour spin. The by-election was not "all about the bridge". Toll charges on the Forth Road Bridge are the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, which is a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Yet Labour was punished and Willie Rennie, the new MP, was rewarded.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown hope to repair the bond of trust with the electorate by striking authoritarian poses against the terrorist threat. Mr Blair seems to take great satisfaction from having the Conservatives on the "wrong side of public opinion". But this is a dangerous game because they have failed to make the case either for identity cards or for the offence of glorifying terrorism.

Mr Brown's sudden interest in counter-terrorism policy is interesting. As we report today, he intends as prime minister to try again to get the 90-day detention power on to the statute book. In a speech tomorrow, he will set out his argument for tougher laws generally, balanced by tougher systems of oversight and accountability. All of it is strangely off the point of this week's business, however.

Most of the potential Labour rebels are not opposed to identity cards in principle - although there may be good reasons to do so. They are worried about the ability of the state to run a massive computer database effectively, and they are worried about the cost. Simply promising to investigate, at this late stage, the potential savings on the benefits bill does not meet those concerns.

Equally, Labour rebels are not persuaded of the need for the wider definition of "glorification". They recognise the opportunism with which ministers have seized on the Abu Hamza case and the recent outcry over the jihadist placards outside the Danish embassy. They know that Hamza was convicted of soliciting murder under existing laws and that the delay in bringing him to justice was an operational matter for the police. As was the delay in acting against the embassy demonstrators.

No one disputes that the threat of jihadist suicide terrorism is real and frightening, but the case has not been made - as it was not made in the case of the 90-day detention power - that existing law is inadequate. The suspicion is unavoidable that Mr Blair is pressing ahead with the vote on glorification as a symbolic gesture, "using legislation as a press release" in Chris Huhne's phrase, in this case to announce that he is tough on terrorism. Simply repeating, as Mr Brown does, that "the terrorist threat has not diminished" does not allay that suspicion.

As a result, Mr Blair and Mr Brown risk losing this week's votes - especially the second one on glorification - and thus further undermining the Government's standing. They will only have themselves to blame.

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