Interview Charles Clarke: "I Encouraged Tony to Serve as Much of His Term as He Can. I Hope He'll Want Me to Do This Job through That Period. I Think He Will"

Article excerpt

The Home Secretary was on the deck of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when the Prime Minister rang to discuss his 12-point plan to counter terrorism. Britain was about to be told, in one of the most controversial announcements of his premiership, that the "rules of the game were changing". What did Charles Clarke say to Tony Blair?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"I said I'd been on a fantastic whale-watching trip the day before, and he was very interested. I am not going to talk about the details of the conversation, but it was a very tense period for the country, and we were in very frequent contact." So, contrary to some suggestions, Clarke did know all about the Prime Minister's anti-terror manifesto in advance? "Of course," he says.

Having dealt with whales and terror, Clarke resumed his holiday in Plymouth. "It is the home of the true fundamentalist," he says. As he does not add, the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed there were escaping persecution. The Blair government, according to some critics, may be sending suspects home to face just such a fate.

Clarke's draft anti-terrorism bill, based on the 12-point plan, was finally unveiled on 15 September. On the same day, seven people, including several acquitted at the "ricin" trial in April this year, were imprisoned pending deportation to Algeria, with which a "no-torture" pact will be signed, Clarke says, "in weeks, and not many weeks".

The bill itself ran into problems with the leak of two draft letters to Clarke's Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposite numbers. The first appeared to show that he had some doubts about the controversial move to hold suspects without charge for three months. The second, and final, version, offered a tougher stance. Will Clarke have to compromise?

"I'm convinced the three months is fine ... But because both David [Davis] and Mark [Oaten] had raised doubts, I was uncertain quite how to word the covering letter ... Will we compromise? We will seek to do so. My preference is to work on a basis of compromise and agreement, if we can, but if Mark Oaten wants to say there is no case for extending the time beyond 14 days, I couldn't accept that. But you could have a slightly different argument about timescale." Would a month sound right? "I'm not going to prejudge," he says, but it sounds as if the three-month plan is there to be demolished.

Clarke is more robust on criminalising the "glorification" ofterror. "It's simply wrong that it will become illegal ... to promote a Palestinian state. But if somebody says on Newsnight ... that he urges people to blow up a bus or two ... I would say that is behaviour that rightly ought to be illegal." Once again, he "will be interested to see what [his opponents] have to say".

On the judiciary, Clarke is very much less tractable. Though he boasts a good relationship with Lord Woolf, the outgoing Lord Chief Justice, and his successor, Lord Phillips, his views on the law lords go beyond what even his judge-bashing predecessor, David Blunkett, might have thought prudent.

"I have been frustrated at the inability to have general conversations of principle with the law lords ... because of their sense of propriety. I do find that frustrating. I have never met any of them. I think there is a view that it's not appropriate to meet in terms of their integrity. I'm not sure I agree ... and I regret that. I think some dialogue between the senior judiciary and the executive would be beneficial, and finding a channel is quite important."

Clearly, the conduit is not going to be Lord Bingham, head of Britain's highest court. In a speech to the Law Society this month he warned against any ministerial interference with judicial independence, adding that it would be the ultimate treason for any judge "to uphold as lawful that which is unlawful".

Although Clarke supports this stance, his rebuke must be the sternest ever delivered by a home secretary to the most senior law lord. …