The Chaos over This Terror Legislation Reflects the Lack of Trust in Tony Blair

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The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, concedes more ground. A judge will decide whether suspects should be placed under house arrest. The Government's original proposals are no longer under consideration. Parliament and most of the media rage about the dangers of a supposedly mighty executive, yet it is MPs and the Lords, cheered on by the media, who have tamed the supposedly arrogant ministers.

At Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, Mr Blair adopted his "I have no reverse gear" tone over the anti-terrorist legislation, but he had already applied his much-used lever by granting a more extensive role to judges. As Mr Clarke stated in the debate yesterday afternoon, in extreme cases he would have preferred the elected politicians to take the immediate decision. He is not alone. As far as I can tell, judges are not seeking the powers that Parliament seems determined to impose on them. Most of the judges interviewed in recent days express concern about being placed in a pivotal role. In effect, they will be making decisions about the nature of the threat to national security and the most appropriate way of dealing with it.

As I argued last week, there is a strong case for ministers, not judges, to exercise emergency powers in extreme situations. Ministers are responsible for national security and accountable for their actions. We have seen over the last fortnight how accountable they are. Even with a landslide majority, Mr Blair and Mr Clarke have struggled to get their way. It has been suggested in some quarters that the Commons was craven and the Lords more assertive. This is not the case. The first concessions were announced to restive MPs last week. Even after the concessions were made, the Government's majority was reduced to 14 and would have been wiped out completely had some Liberal Democrats bothered to vote. Most of the time it is a myth that British governments - and Prime Ministers in particular - can do more or less what they like. Quite often they feel overwhelmingly constrained, even this administration with its massive landslide. Especially this administration with its fears of alienating parts of the media and so-called middle- England voters.

Yesterday's debate in the Commons also revealed again that, for all the huffing and puffing, most MPs recognise that house arrests might be necessary. The problem for Mr Blair is partly a matter of trust and credibility after the war against Iraq, an episode in which he did assert excessive Prime Ministerial powers and, I suspect to his surprise, he did so with a majority of public and media opinion against him.

There is a revealing contrast between the current row and a similar situation during Labour's first term. After the IRA attack in Omagh in the summer of 1999, Mr Blair rushed through draconian anti-terrorist legislation, not quite as sweeping as the current proposals, but wide-ranging and unprecedented in scope. Some political lawyers were alarmed, as they are now, but on the whole the mood was supportive. Mr Blair was still enjoying a honeymoon with the voters and the media. He was trusted.

The intelligence relating to suspects in Britain is more forensic than material relating to Iraq. When Mr Blair and Mr Clarke assert that the intelligence points to real dangers, I believe them. Other ministers not known for getting over-excited tell me that - to quote one of them - "some of this stuff is really frightening". Mistakenly, Mr Blair placed equal weight on the tendentious intelligence relating to Iraq. He cannot escape the origins of the war, as the related row over the unpublished legal advice from the Attorney General also illustrates. …