Sunday, 2 January 2011

Why ending control orders might not be such a 'fucking car crash' for the coalition afterall

Jerry Hayes has an interesting blogpost this afternoon over at ThinkPolitics on the ending of control orders and the inevitable screams of anguish and betrayal it'll bring from the Tory right. Cameron has been whispering for months that the political battle over the powers, which give the police the right to put terrorist suspects under virtual house arrest, will be a "fucking car crash" for the coalition.

But i've got a niggling feeling that in the long run it might not be so bad for the government. Or, at least, if it is a car crash not as many voters as they think will slow down to take a look as they pass by.

Firstly it almost goes without saying that headlines such as "Nick Clegg 'wins fight to scrap control orders'" (if not the Sunday Times' spin on it) are fantastic for the Liberal Democrats and exactly the sort of coverage I think they need to be generating in order to stand a chance of survival in the run up to the next election.

But even for the Tories, are Cameron's fears really justified? While polls may still suggest public support for strong anti-terrorist measures, all polling on voters' priorities in the run up to the election put the economy far above terrorism/national security. This is not to say they don't care - when confronted on the issue - about the latter, but it is clearly not at the centre of the agenda in the way it was under Blair and in particular following the 2005 attacks. Economic, not physical, security now dominates the political landscape. While the Tory papers will kick up a stink, I'd be amazed if it's not knocked off the front pages by the end of the month. I suspect there is no longer the climate of fear among ordinary voters to sustain it further than that.

Another - little discussed - reason to believe the hysteria will tail off is that control orders is also an awkward topic for Labour. Ed Miliband has made obvious his desperation to dispel the perception that Labour is authoritarian, especially as he seeks to woo disaffected Lib Dem voters. Under pressure from Blairites to out-flank the Tories to the right on crime and human rights, I'd be surprised if he goes to any length to keep an issue in the air that would serve to again highlight his own internal divisions. A trap is laid for him there.

To this backdrop, as Hayes recommends, some political manoeuvring with the security services and a narrative around greater surveillance should provide enough cover in the short-term for the Tories to credibly argue they are not soft on terrorism.

Finally, if the storm on control orders does pass and the idea of the government being weak on terrorism fails to set in among voters, it's worth quickly considering the wider implications. With any luck, it could help shape something like a new political consensus on national security with - heaven forbid - some balance restored to the debate, ending (or at least changing) Westminster's long established tradition of dutch auction whereby each side tries to out-posture and out-scream each other, whipping up as big a shit storm as possible in an effort to prove the other is 'weak'. Cameron's predictions of a "fucking car crush" are predicated on such rules of the game, but it's possible - and here's hoping - the PM himself hasn't quite caught up with the new landscape the economic crisis has foisted upon us. The fact that Brown's attempt (straight from the New Labour rulebook) to posture on detention without trial fell flat in late 2007 is a promising omen in this respect. If the Government stand firm, they can ride this out and the country will be a better place.