Last weekend I was sternly assured by a shadow Cabinet member that the Conservatives would resist the temptation to attack the government over the terrorism arrests. ‘The only people who benefit when an opposition starts playing politics with the issue are the terrorists,’ he declared. Things must have seemed rather different in David Cameron’s holiday villa in Corfu. A few hours after he arrived at Gatwick airport, partisan hostilities were resumed.
Labour’s complaint — that the Tory leader was ‘playing politics’ with terrorism — was as predictable as it was sanctimonious. Since the alleged terrorist plot came to light at 6 a.m. on 10 August everyone has been playing at politics, with varying degrees of success. Labour’s real worry is not that Mr Cameron plays politics, but that he does so effectively.
The government has good reason to be furious about the Tory offensive. First, Mr Cameron has struck while the shop is being minded by the preposterous John Prescott. Labour dare not allow the public to witness a Cameron v. Prescott battle. So it resorts to crying foul, hoping to drown out the indecipherable jabbering of the Deputy Prime Minister. We can expect much of this for the next week.
Moreover, the government has much to be defensive about. The chaos witnessed at British airports has been only the most vis-ible sign of a general lack of preparedness — and it is not at all disloyal for an opposition party to say so. One example lies in counter-terrorism. Intelligence sources have told The Spectator that the battle against home-grown extremists has been handicapped by a two-year delay in giving MI5 the budget needed to respond to the new threat. It takes three years to train agent runners and surveillance teams. Yet the expansion did not start in earnest until 2003 — so resources are only coming on stream now, five years after the 11 September attack.
Therein lies some of the blame for the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian shot dead in Stockwell Underground station after the abortive 21 July bomb attack in London last year. The security services were still not up to full strength then, and were understaffed. They had to draw in personnel unfamiliar with the relevant protocol — hence, disaster. Had the MI5 budget expansion started on time, the disaster might have been averted. This analysis reaches me not from the Tories, incidentally, but impeccably placed intelligence sources.
If Mr Cameron manages to home in on such weaknesses, he could argue that Labour has left Britain more vulnerable by its failure to prepare — a credible message, given the near-total and very public collapse of the Home Office. MI5 is now up to strength, as is clear from its brilliant interception of the alleged plot and liaison with Pakistani intelligence. But the terrorists have been given a head start because the government had dithered for so long in reconfiguring intelligence agencies.
The suspects arrested last week are not an 11 September-style gang of suicide bombers. As Mr Prescott stupidly let slip in a meeting with Muslim MPs, some will be released without charge and some were only tangentially involved — allegedly providing passports, mobile phones and even accommodation to the key suspects. The goal for John Reid, the Home Secretary, will be to harness the groundswell of public opinion revealed by our YouGov poll, and try to resurrect plans to allow detention for 90 days without trial.
This would be a spectacular battle and, therefore, the perfect decoy. Mr Reid would be able to claim, quite wrongly, that the deficiencies of British security were due to the intransigence of Labour and Tory MPs, rather than a reflection of government failure. To his credit, Mr Cameron has not dropped the Conservatives’ principled opposition to this measure and has been prepared to stand against the opinion poll tide. The next few weeks could see him go head to head with Mr Reid — and this could be the most intriguing battle of them all.
We have seen how Mr Cameron deals with Gordon Brown. The Chancellor knows only one mode of attack, which is full-frontal assault — unappealing to the electorate, one suspects. Mr Cameron deploys political jujitsu, turning the force of the Chancellor’s attack against him. Mr Reid is every bit as tough and ruthless as the Chancellor, but more nimble than his fellow Scot. If the terrorism debate turns into a Cameron v. Reid battle, and one which looks far worse for the Tories than a Cameron v. Brown battle, then the forthcoming Labour leadership contest may suddenly be wide open.
The silence of the Chancellor has been deafening in the last week. The man who proposed that Britain adopt Swedish-style paternity leave is certainly leading by example. It is now five weeks since the birth of James Fraser Brown and there is not a public peep from his doting father. Mr Brown has, I am told, pledged to say nothing throughout August. If this is a ploy to show what happens in his absence, it has backfired. One of the most striking points of the last week is how little he has been missed.
Mr Reid, meanwhile, is growing more confident. He has let it be known, privately, that the Chancellor may well have pre-judiced the trial of 19 of the suspects by asking the Treasury to freeze their bank accounts — thereby obliging the Bank of England to publish their names. It will not be long before the next Home Office disaster is visited upon him, perhaps in the form of the impending prison officers strike. So he must milk the current situation for every drop of political capital.
There is still time for Mr Cameron to forge a sharper critique of the government’s terror policy and better prepare to tackle Mr Reid. He is showing an encouraging ability to adapt, as is clear from the policy document on which all Conservative members are being asked to vote by 18 September. It is not exactly the Tamworth Manifesto. But of its 54 pledges, there are now at least 11 which could not be signed by a member of the Labour party. This is 11 more than existed in its vacuous list of the original ‘Built to Last’ statement published in February: Team Cameron heard criticism, and reacted to it.
Thus the stage is nicely set for a recall of Parliament, which is likely once Mr Blair returns from the Caribbean. The government needs to assert itself against the terrorists; Mr Cameron needs to assert himself against the government, and the Chancellor will have to assert himself against everyone. For the summer silly season, things are looking remarkably serious.