Is this opportunism I see before me?

Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, is seeking from Parliament new powers to detain suspected terrorists; the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats are both opposed, and charges of rank opportunism are flying in every direction.

Labour claims that the existing law (also introduced under Labour) has to be changed before it lapses, and that the opposition parties are obstructing this for party advantage in the run up to the general election. Opposition parties believe that it is Labour that is manoeuvring for party advantage: that Clarke wants to see the current law lapse so he can release terror suspects and blame the opposition. With that in mind, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have offered temporarily to renew the current law to allow proper debate on a new one.

Labour further charges that Michael Howard makes a very unconvincing defender of civil liberties. Was he not seen as an excessively authoritarian Home Secretary? Joined by the normally sensible libertarian columnist, Matthew D'Ancona of the Sunday Telegraph, Labour points to Howard's role defending the Home Secretary's right to define the sentences of life prisoners. Labour - and less usually D'Ancona - fall far short of reasonable analysis here. Howard was thought of as a pretty tough Home Secretary at the time - but there have been three far more authoritarian incumbents since then. And in defending the executive's right to define the sentence of a lifer, Howard was not seeking to take new powers to the Home Office, merely exercise powers that had been used without challenge by almost a dozen of his predecessors. Since the Home Secretary who brought in the law giving this power to the office was, at the time, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and subsequently Leader of the SDP, and then Leader in the Lords of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party is arguably the only party not tainted by that particular Act of Parliament.

But, of course, the Home Secretary's power to set a tariff for life prisoners, while perhaps offending purist followers of Montesquieu's constitutional theories, is not in any way comparable to Charles Clarke's plans. Howard only claimed the right to confine to prison people who had been convicted in an open trial by a jury of their peers. Clarke wants to lock up "suspects". And that is a completely different thing.

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