Magazine article The Spectator

If John Reid Does Well against Cameron, He'll Be a Serious Contender to Succeed Blair

Magazine article The Spectator

If John Reid Does Well against Cameron, He'll Be a Serious Contender to Succeed Blair

Article excerpt

Last weekend I was sternly assured by a shadow Cabinet member that the Conservatives would resist the temptation to attack the government over the terrorism arrests. 'The only people who benefit when an opposition starts playing politics with the issue are the terrorists, ' he declared.

Things must have seemed rather different in David Cameron's holiday villa in Corfu. A few hours after he arrived at Gatwick airport, partisan hostilities were resumed.

Labour's complaint -- that the Tory leader was 'playing politics' with terrorism -- was as predictable as it was sanctimonious. Since the alleged terrorist plot came to light at 6 a. m. on 10 August everyone has been playing at politics, with varying degrees of success. Labour's real worry is not that Mr Cameron plays politics, but that he does so effectively.

The government has good reason to be furious about the Tory offensive. First, Mr Cameron has struck while the shop is being minded by the preposterous John Prescott. Labour dare not allow the public to witness a Cameron v. Prescott battle.

So it resorts to crying foul, hoping to drown out the indecipherable jabbering of the Deputy Prime Minister. We can expect much of this for the next week.

Moreover, the government has much to be defensive about. The chaos witnessed at British airports has been only the most visible sign of a general lack of preparedness -- and it is not at all disloyal for an opposition party to say so. One example lies in counter-terrorism. Intelligence sources have told The Spectator that the battle against home-grown extremists has been handicapped by a two-year delay in giving MI5 the budget needed to respond to the new threat. It takes three years to train agent runners and surveillance teams. Yet the expansion did not start in earnest until 2003 -- so resources are only coming on stream now, five years after the 11 September attack.

Therein lies some of the blame for the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian shot dead in Stockwell Underground station after the abortive 21 July bomb attack in London last year. The security services were still not up to full strength then, and were understaffed. They had to draw in personnel unfamiliar with the relevant protocol -- hence, disaster.

Had the MI5 budget expansion started on time, the disaster might have been averted. This analysis reaches me not from the Tories, incidentally, but impeccably placed intelligence sources.

If Mr Cameron manages to home in on such weaknesses, he could argue that Labour has left Britain more vulnerable by its failure to prepare -- a credible message, given the near-total and very public collapse of the Home Office. MI5 is now up to strength, as is clear from its brilliant interception of the alleged plot and liaison with Pakistani intelligence. But the terrorists have been given a head start because the government had dithered for so long in reconfiguring intelligence agencies.

The suspects arrested last week are not an 11 September-style gang of suicide bombers. As Mr Prescott stupidly let slip in a meeting with Muslim MPs, some will be released without charge and some were only tangentially involved -- allegedly providing passports, mobile phones and even accommodation to the key suspects. The goal for John Reid, the Home Secretary, will be to harness the groundswell of public opinion revealed by our YouGov poll, and try to resurrect plans to allow detention for 90 days without trial. …

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