The Tory dilemma on ID cards reflects a greater malaise

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The Independent Online

The Government is strongly in favour of them and launched a Bill to that effect within days of the Queen's speech. The Liberal Democrats are firmly against, citing civil liberties objections. So, incidentally, is this newspaper, for the same reason. But the Tories - well, where exactly do the Tories stand on the question of identity cards?

The shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, has said he has misgivings about the plans for ID cards and will subject the Bill to serious scrutiny. In a faint echo of the Chancellor's wariness about the euro, he has set five tests that must be met before he supports the Bill. A small coterie of back-benchers is adamantly opposed: some out of civil rights considerations, others out of libertarian motives. They point out that even in President Bush's United States, even after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, the Administration has never proposed the introduction of ID cards for Americans. So why do we need them in Britain? A good question, but apparently not one the Tory leadership is rushing to answer.

Once again, Michael Howard has allowed himself to be caught in the double trap of safety and national security neatly laid for him by Mr Blair. With opinion polls showing 80 per cent of voters now in favour of ID cards and Labour intent on outflanking the Tories as the party of law and order, Mr Howard is stuck. Denounce identity cards, and he lays himself open to accusations of being "soft" on security. Support the Bill, and he is meekly tagging along on the Government's coat-tails.

In one respect, Tory divisions on ID cards merely highlight the persistence of the party's much older division between idealists and pragmatists, between libertarians and authoritarians. It is also an issue that symbolises the party's inability to work out what it stands for these days. Less than six months before the expected date of the general election, however, it is time Mr Howard made up his mind - on ID cards, as on much else. "One of the great things about Britain historically," Mr Davis said in his recent public agonising, "is that we haven't had to justify ourselves to authority." There is not a lot wrong with that instinct - nor with adopting it as party policy.

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