For security reasons newspapers have been asked not to name the holiday destination to which Tony Blair departed last weekend. This is fair enough, but Spectator readers will nevertheless be reassured to learn that the most characteristic feature of a Blair family holiday still applies: it is taking place at somebody else’s expense. The home where the Blairs are now staying is owned by a millionaire acquaintance, and it is most unlikely that they are paying anything near the market rate.
In other respects life has changed. The day before setting off on holiday the Prime Minister suddenly called a press conference to announce emergency measures against terrorism. This event seems to have been intended to leave behind a sense that he was in control.
If this was the intention it failed. This unnecessary press conference has left behind only chaos and contradiction. It soon became clear that Tony Blair’s ‘12-point plan’ to fight terror had not been devised with anything resembling the gravity which the subject demands.
At the heart of last Friday’s counter-terrorism strategy is a pledge to deport Islamic extremists from Britain. This means amending, or more likely revoking, the European convention on human rights which New Labour joyfully incorporated into British law eight years ago. On Friday Tony Blair made it plain that he was determined to amend the Human Rights Act if it would help to secure the evictions he craves. Yet within 24 hours Charlie Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, rubbished the Prime Minister’s assertion. He insisted that deportations would only be dealt with by agreements with foreign countries, and was adamant that ‘we are not willing to repeal any part of the Human Rights Act’.
But there is a wider curiosity about the Prime Minister’s press conference. It is essential that anti-terrorism measures, which take away so many ancient liberties from British subjects and target particular groups within the community, should be enacted by a broad agreement. Yet neither the opposition parties nor community groups were adequately briefed in advance. More striking still, parts of the Prime Minister’s package came as a surprise to the Home Office itself, whose officials were left ‘stunned’ by some of the announcements. In particular they were amazed by the pledge to ban the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Home Office explicitly advised against taking this action only a few weeks ago after officials concluded that Hizb ut-Tahrir was non-violent.
They have been here many times. Tony Blair has always been exceptionally susceptible to pressure from the tabloid newspapers, and likes to respond at times of crisis by producing what he privately terms ‘eye-catching headlines’. In the past these have included the pledge to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan, to give the police powers to seize young thugs and drag them to cashpoints, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and an almost unlimited number besides. These announcements tend to be made with tremendous fanfare, and then sink without trace.
Yet this obsession with presentation and concentration on solutions that last no longer than the following day’s newspapers comes at a price. When the Prime Minister either fails to follow through an initiative, or makes an assertion that later turns out to be false, he creates distrust, weakens his own credibility and — most important of all — brings the authority of the state into question.
That is what he was doing last Friday. Tony Blair was dealing with grave and delicate matters which require grown-up treatment, and yet he was fooling around in a reprehensibly juvenile fashion. In particular he was responding to a powerful campaign waged in the Sun and other newspapers for terrorist sympathisers to be shifted out of Britain. New Labour has often been accused of bringing into government the techniques of opposition, and that is exactly what has happened in this case. The Prime Minister’s laughable 12-point plan is exactly the sort of thing which an excitable shadow home secretary, eager to make his mark on events, might conjure up on a dull afternoon. In opposition, lack of preparation and forward planning perhaps matters rather less than a flashy headline.
In government there are severe penalties for the empty game-playing of the sort which was on display last Friday, especially at a time when Britain is searching for a solution to one of the great crises of our post-war history. A great deal was lost thanks to the vainglorious impetuosity of the British Prime Minister. Until that point the strategy of the Home Secretary Charles Clarke had been to operate through consensus and retain the support of Muslim opinion. Clarke had been carefully working towards a summit with community leaders in September, while his deputy Hazel Blears had been planning a preparatory national tour. Tony Blair’s back-of-the-envelope announcement, with just two weeks’ consultation on these emergency plans, has jeopardised this consensus. Even pro-government Muslim Labour MPs like Sadiq Khan and Shahid Malik have been converted into critics.
And yet the shambolic press conference was merely the prelude to a dismaying week-long display of Downing Street incompetence. Last Saturday, still striving for headlines, government sources — thought to be within the Attorney General’s office, but authorised by No. 10 — briefed the Sunday newspapers that the ancient crime of treason might be resurrected as a tool to confront terrorists and their apologists. This story was soon contradicted by Lord Chancellor Falconer. Then Hazel Blears, who is beginning to give the impression that she is badly out of her depth as a Home Office minister, proposed a plan to create a new category of ‘British Asians’ in order to combat terrorism, only for that to be denied by Downing Street. Meanwhile, a separate farce was under way as David Blunkett, who quit the Home Office in disgraceful circumstances only nine months ago, attempted to muscle his way back into his old patch, only to be snubbed by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.
Last week was very important in our national life. As the Prime Minister intimated, we have been obliged to rethink our most fundamental freedoms and legal protections. It is right that we should do so in the face of a unique and terrifying threat to the lives of ordinary citizens. Given the astonishing and inexcusable scale of government levity and incompetence, opposition parties have been remarkably restrained. David Davis, shadow home secretary, publicly supported Tony Blair’s emergency package. He is reluctant to create the impression of division and disharmony, holding back from criticism in order not to give succour to the terrorists.
This self-restraint is admirable, bordering on the heroic. But John Denham, chairman of the home affairs select committee, was nearer the mark when he called on ministers to ‘get a grip on it very, very quickly, stop floating half-baked ideas and get back to proper cross-party consensus on the serious measures that need to be taken’. Denham is right, and Tony Blair and his ministers must pull themselves together.