Matthew Dancona

‘If there’s a vote of no confidence on 42 days, we’ll win’

In her only print interview, Jacqui Smith tells Matthew d’Ancona that her proposal for the detention of terror suspects does not undermine Magna Carta, that she is ‘frustrated’ by Lord Goldsmith, and that the ‘West Midlands housewife’ is a better judge of the threat than MPs

‘If there’s a vote of no confidence  on 42 days, we’ll win’
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In her only print interview, Jacqui Smith tells Matthew d’Ancona that her proposal for the detention of terror suspects does not undermine Magna Carta, that she is ‘frustrated’ by Lord Goldsmith, and that the ‘West Midlands housewife’ is a better judge of the threat than MPs

In a government stuffed with malfunctioning robots, nervous wrecks and preening Fauntleroys, Jacqui Smith shows every sign of being a fully paid-up member of the human race. Which, as it happens, is the first lucky break Gordon Brown has had in months.

It is a slight exaggeration to say that the Home Secretary holds her boss’s future in her hands — but only slight. Next week, the Commons will vote on extending the limit for detaining terror suspects to 42 days and — whatever he says to the contrary — the Prime Minister’s position will be deeply and instantly precarious if he loses. Victory is by no means in the bag. All things considered, Ms Smith, her blue eyes sparkling merrily, is looking very chipper.

‘Oh, thank you,’ says the 45-year-old MP for Redditch. ‘Well, for any elected politician, as I said on my first day, to be given the job of protecting the British people, our borders, our communities, that’s a pretty good job, it’s a great honour.’ No doubt, but the stakes are now vertiginously high, aren’t they? I mean, what- ever Gordon thinks, his premiership could simply collapse in the event of a serious defeat?

‘I don’t think the government could fall over this,’ she says, carefully. ‘I think if it was turned into a vote of confidence there would be massive support of the government, I don’t think it would be a problem.’ But it could be, Home Secretary. ‘I think we’re going to win [the 42 days vote]’. But what if you don’t? ‘Well I don’t think it would... well, I don’t know, it is up to the opposition to call a vote of no confidence, but it seems to me that they would be a bit silly to do that.’

OK, but why do it now, as the government is reeling from the 10p debacle, the local election disasters and its by-election defeat in Crewe and Nantwich? As I am going through the list, she nods and laughs (again, that ‘human being’ stuff). But her answer is serious.

‘This is what government is about,’ she says, ‘it is the sort of decision that governments have to take, that oppositions can avoid. It is fundamentally about what it means to be in government. Let’s not forget, when we were elected in 1997, there were people at that point and probably for years since — including some of our own supporters — who had some pretty fundamental doubts about whether or not a Labour government could ever take the tough decisions necessary for national security.’

In this battle, she has the firm support of the Met and of Lord Carlile, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. The cry throughout the debate has been for ‘evidence’ that the new powers are needed. The whole point is that these powers are being sought before they are absolutely necessary but on the basis that they will soon become so.

The trajectory is clear: Dhiren Barot, who was sentenced to life in November 2006 after plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank and landmark London hotels, was charged just within the 14-day limit (as it then was). Since then, the new 28-day limit has been required in 11 cases, eight of which have led to charges — in several instances going right to the wire. The plots to cause carnage are growing very quickly in scale and complexity, as are the technological and forensic challenges. In the alleged airline plot of 2006, for instance, 200 mobile phones, 400 computers and a total of 8,000 disks, containing 6,000 gigabytes of data, were seized. Ms Smith’s opponents insist that such technological problems could be dealt with under existing legislation such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Not so, says the Home Secretary: most such offences are bailable, which gets you back to square one. She is also against the US-style use of ‘holding charges’ to keep suspects in detention pending more serious evidence being uncovered. ‘I think it is a good thing for the system to be charging people with what it is you think they have actually done, you know.’

The greater problem, according to opponents of the 42-days proposal, is that Labour is now so keen to appear muscular and to score macho political points that it has lost all regard for civil liberties and for the impact upon Muslim communities of such symbolic legislation. And there has been no shortage of public figures keen to say that an extension of the present 28-day limit is not needed: not only opposition politicians, but Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Falconer, the former lord chancellor, and Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general.

A graduate of Hertford College, Oxford (PPE) and former teacher, Ms Smith has risen quickly through the ministerial ranks since becoming an MP in 1997. More feminine in person than she allows herself to be on television, she sits back in her smart blue pinstripe trouser suit and reflects upon her dilemma. Is she not frustrated by Lord Goldsmith, who was part of the Cabinet that signed up to Tony Blair’s original 90-days proposal, suddenly discovering his inner libertarian? ‘You’re right, it’s frustrating! But he was right the last time round in my book, and he’s wrong now, and I just need to keep making the arguments.’ She says this with a wry chuckle and a cocked eyebrow that conveys her view of Goldsmith: yup, he’s a right tosser.

Still, she is not pretending that the fault lies only on one side. She and her minister of state, Tony McNulty — a clever operator worthy of Cabinet rank — have had to unpick the damage done by the row in 2005 over 90 days, an ugly confrontation in which Blair did little to hide his contempt for the opposition.

‘We said to people, OK, we are genuine about having a consultation here, we are putting forward options, what do you think? This is a serious issue that does come to the heart of the challenge of countering terror, and maintaining individual liberty, it is in line with an analysis that the Prime Minister made in his speech about liberty [at the University of Westminster in October], therefore it is right that we take an approach which — frankly — is slightly different from the approach that was taken over 90 days.’

The proposal has been framed not as a straight demand for a new limit, but as a phased series of extensions in which 14 days is the norm, 28 days (the existing legal limit) the exception, and the extension to 42 days a reserve power for ‘a grave exceptional terrorist threat’. Under an amendment unveiled on Tuesday, Parliament will assess such an extension within seven days of its declaration by the Home Secretary. Meanwhile, individual cases will be subject to judicial safeguards in adversarial hearings. The extension powers will expire after 30 days. Whatever else it is, this is not ‘internment’, the shredding of Magna Carta or the end of habeas corpus.

To come clean: I support the measure and, in doing so, I have discovered first hand how much hostility it inspires (one prominent conservative acquaintance declined a social invitation recently on the grounds that I was in favour of ‘arbitrary imprisonment’). For this atmosphere, New Labour has much to answer for: we have reached the point where the diet of spin and the drainage of trust have made people suspicious of all restrictive measures as capricious authoritarianism — the very sharp end of the nanny state’s greedy ambitions.

The disaster of the Iraq dossiers completed the domestication of the war on terror: collectively , as a polity, we stopped seeing the conflict as a global issue and started to assess its controversies through the narrow prism of domestic politics. And Ms Smith concedes that this is a big problem, that we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Wading through Hansard’s reports of the debates so far on the Counter-Terrorism Bill — a carnival of logic-chopping, lazy sophistry, clichéd assertion and point-scoring — one has to remind oneself that the issue at hand is how to stop fundamentalists killing hundreds of people, rather than a motion before a second-division public school debating society. Is it not a huge (possibly insuperable) challenge to steer parliamentarians away from this microscopic approach back towards the big picture they saw so clearly in the immediate aftermath of 9/11?

‘There is a short-term challenge which is about providing the legislative tools for people to investigate the threat now, but we have also tried to raise people’s sights by saying there is the longer term work that we need to do — what we call the “prevent” strand. That is about how you prevent people turning to violent extremism in the first place, that’s about challenging the ideology, that’s about making sure that mainstream voices are able to be strong, that’s about identifying vulnerable individuals and working with them, that’s about strengthening communities.’

In that very context, does she concede that an extension to 42 days might alienate British Muslims and act as a ‘recruiting sergeant’ for al-Qa’eda and its affiliates? ‘No, I don’t. And in fact I think precisely the opposite. The times at which Muslim communities in this country have been most vulnerable have been the times immediately after a successful or foiled plot, right. It is not passing a piece of legislation that means Muslim kids are bullied in the playground or young Muslim men feel they can’t travel on the Tube, it’s when there is a successful attack or when there is a clear statement that actually perverts the pieces of Islam to justify terrorism. That’s when those communities come under attack.’ And, in any case, with Islamic extremists everything is a potential recruiting sergeant, from the length of women’s skirts to the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. ‘All political and historical factors,’ as the Home Secretary says, are deployed in this twisted game of specious justification.

The irony of the present parliamentary row over 42 days is that her opponents seem willing to accept almost any crackdown other than this particular measure: reform of the Civil Contingencies Act (CCA); post-charge questioning; more aggressive use of so-called ‘threshold charging’ to allow prosecutors to charge suspects on the basis that stronger evidence is likely to turn up; the use of ‘holding’ charges; the admissibility of intercept evidence; and so on. ‘Using the CCA without having put in the safeguards that we put in is massively draconian,’ she says. ‘First of all, there is the argument about whether or not legally it can be used, I think that’s question- able. But, fundamentally, what they are arguing is that it should be possible in an emergency situation to hold somebody for up to a maximum period — for an additional 30 days — up to a maximum of 58 with no reference to a judge for individual detention, with no scrutiny by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism and report back to parliament.’

Part of the problem is that the row, as was also the case during the 90-day controversy, has been reduced to an argument about a specific figure. As Mr McNulty has said, ‘It is a tragedy that this has boiled down to some sort of bingo around the number of days.’ But the more profound question is whether this government — perhaps any government — is trusted to take precautionary measures. The crunch is that these powers are being sought on the basis of judgments about the future. The Home Secretary is pursuing what Philip Bobbitt in his masterly new book Terror and Consent calls a ‘preclusive’ strategy: ‘stockpiling laws as well as vaccines’, as he puts it. The question is whether a Western government — and this 11-year-old government in particular — can pull off such a strategy, with trust in the gutter and support for the ‘war on terror’ at a low ebb.

Still, Ms Smith is giving it her best shot. Rarely has a minister’s stock soared as suddenly as the Home Secretary’s did on Monday night when she made an appeal to the Parliamentary Labour Party to give her the votes she needs. ‘It was a remarkable performance,’ says one senior colleague. ‘She gave them what they haven’t had for ages — a sense of respect, that she needed their help and that she wasn’t just another Cabinet minister telling them what to do.’

For her part, Ms Smith relishes the sense that she speaks for Middle Britain about the scale of the threat. ‘I was accused by Diane Abbott of being, quote, “like a West Midlands housewife stockpiling the cans of salmon in case of difficulty”. Guilty, right? And I’ll tell you what, I think that West Midlands housewives have probably got a better idea of what we need to do to prepare against terrorism, than, I have to say, some of my colleagues potentially have.’

English, female, articulate, a human being: suddenly Labour MPs are taking a very close look indeed at their Home Secretary. If Jacqui saves Gordon next week, she may yet stake a claim to be his successor.