Is the detention limit extension a good battle-ground for Labour?
On the second day of the Queen’s speech debate battle was joined on what’s likely to be a difficult issue for the government in the coming session – the move to extend the maximum period that suspects can be held with trial beyond the current 28 days.
This is an issue that the Blair government tried and failed to push before but is one that Brown has decided to raise again leaving it up to his home secretary, Jacqui Smith to carry the flag for the government and Labour.
Her challenge is that she’s up against not only her formidable Tory shadow, David Davis, but also large parts of the serious press as well. This morning’s editions won’t make comfortable reading – particularly the suggestions that the measure is only being proposed as a means of attacking the Tories.
Under the heading “Gordon Brown is playing political games with a debate that is both sinister and silly” this is how Steve Richards describes it in the Independent this morning “..Do not knock Jacqui Smith for declaring yesterday on the BBC’s Today programme that she did not know how long the extension should be. Ms Smith should be praised for lapsing into candour, perhaps unintentionally. No one knows what such a limit should be. This is what is so absurd about the meaningless machismo in relation to setting some maximum limit. And yet it appears that Downing Street itself is knocking Ms Smith. Within hours of her interview yesterday, Downing Street made clear that Mr Brown wants a 56-day limit, making Ms Smith’s apparent flexibility seem an act of weakness. But why does Downing Street want 56 days? Why is it not 59, or 61, or 78, or 29? This debate manages to be both sinister and silly…Whenever Mr Brown tries to be too clever by half he gets himself into trouble. The message yesterday was not one of bold resolution, but of muddle. Over this, the Government has a lot to be muddled about.“
By all reports David Davis was on fire yesterday.
This is how Times sketch writer, Ann Treneman, describes it “DD did not stop with a warning shot. He loaded the cannon and let rip. He was a man possessed. It dawned that he might actually care about this. Youâ€™d be surprised how rare that is at Westminster..Ms Smith, he noted, had never explained why she wanted to go beyond the current 28-day period. Indeed, she had told the Home Affairs Committee: â€œThere has not been a circumstance in which it has been necessary up to this point to go beyond 28 days.â€ Ms Smith, on the front bench, muttered: â€œThank goodness.â€.This inflamed DD, who turned on her, teeth bared, like a dog with the hair standing up on the back of his neck. â€œShe seems to have managed to pick this number out of the air!â€ he cried, referring to 28 days. â€œThe highest number in the free world! The highest length of time for people to be held without charge in the free world!”
A key political question is whether the government’s stance will help it win back Lib Dem votes. This is one of those subjects which are pretty sensitive amongst this group of voters.