Gordon Brown has staked his reputation on the economy, but it may be his handling of the civil liberties-counterterrorism balance which ruins his premiership.
Across the government the prime minister has tasked ministers with implementing his much-needed fightback. Come up with a raft of new measures. Show the world we still have energy and momentum. Aha, Home Office officials say. We have just the thing: a new database.
This one is needed because of the telecommunications revolution, they explain. The internet and growth of mobile technology is changing the way criminals and terrorists communicate. If those responsible for keeping Britain safe are to keep up, they need to be able to monitor the situation. Being able to access records of phone calls would be just what the counter-terrorism official ordered.
Unfortunately, anyone who has been even vaguely politically aware over the last ten years will realise the horrendously fraught dangers the word ‘database’ possesses. They just aren’t cool. Look at the fate of Connecting for Health’s patient records database which has just been delayed by four or five years. How about the furore over data security? A swathe of embarrassing admissions over the winter hasn’t helped the government’s reputation for competence. This government needs another database like the Titanic needed another hole.
Not that Mr Brown’s team is running around on a sinking ship, or so Labour supporters still believe. At a Progress meeting in Westminster last week the consensus was the ‘tipping point’, last seen on Black Wednesday, has not yet condemned the Brown government. They believe the issue is out of Labour’s hands; if the economy picks up all will be well. That’s fine. But if the government tries hard enough it can lose the election without even taking the economy into account.
Very little mention was made of the growing frustration among the civil liberties lobby. The issue is looming, however – the pre-charge detention vote takes place three weeks tomorrow. Jacqui Smith is repeatedly to be seen expressing frustration with those refusing to step back from their concerns about the issue, which has certainly been round long enough. A confrontation is growing which could see Labour backbenchers queuing up against the government on June 11th.
Concessions, as with the 10p income tax fiasco, will probably see the government home and dry. But the negative media coverage about a Home Office grimly determined to get its way will persist. Ms Smith lacks the big black moustache of George Orwell’s Big Brother, but the comparisons continue and continue.
The government’s failure to quash concerns among MPs and the wider public reflects a longer-term inability to understand the depths of concern about such issues. The man on the street might not care about whether a terror suspect is held for 28 days or 42, but he will care if the government can get hold of his phone call records. Ms Smith would be well-advised to think twice about backing a new database. Such a move might help protect Britain, but it could prove a political disaster.