Will a weak compromise on control orders trigger rebellion?

David Davis criticises “control orders lite” as coalition prepares to announce new measures.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, is set to unveil a series of measures to replace the controversial "control orders" currently placed indefinitely on terror suspects who cannot be prosecuted.

For months, the government has been involved in a tug-of-war over the issue, with MPs from all three parties arguing strongly for their retention or abolition. It has been particularly contentious for the coalition, with David Cameron reportedly describing negotiations as a "fucking car crash" last year.

The measures to be announced today will essentially amount to a face-saving exercise – while Nick Clegg fought the election pledging to abolish control orders, May has faced pressure from the security services and authoritarian voices in her party to retain them.

What is expected is a compromise package of measures, including overnight residence requirements from 10pm to 8am – though Clegg will be able to claim progress, as the 16-hour curfews that critics called "virtual house arrest" will end. Electric tagging will continue, although current restrictions on access to the internet and phones will be eased, as will bans on working and being educated.

In scenes reminiscent of George Orwell's "newspeak", officials are reportedly attempting to come up with a new name that is neither "control order" nor "surveillance order", but conveys the need for pre-emptive action. "Restriction order" is said to be one possibility. As the newly appointed shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, pointed out, they "look a lot like control orders".

While any softening of these restrictive and undemocratic orders is a good thing, the fundamental problem has not been addressed – namely, that people are in effect imprisoned without trial and without being told what their crime is.

Writing in the Times (£) today, the renegade Tory MP David Davis, who first signalled his opposition to control orders last year, summarises this position:

The greatest single problem with control orders is that they have become a substitute for the judicial process, whose primary aim is to prosecute and put terrorists in prison.

Many of these problems would vanish if control orders were brought within the normal judicial process, as a form of police bail. It is not unusual in criminal proceedings, while the police are collecting evidence, for courts to allow various restraints on suspects – for them to be restricted from associating with other criminals, or to have to stay in the country. This is justifiable as part of prosecuting a crime and because it is part of an open, rather than a shadowy process. We should implement such a procedure for terrorism cases as a replacement for control orders. If we did, nobody could accuse us of dropping our commitment to the rule of law.

The thrust of his argument is remarkably concordant with the Lib Dem manifesto, which stated: "The best way to combat terrorism is to prosecute terrorists, not give away hard-won British freedoms." As a New Statesman leader pointed out last year, there is a clear, liberal alternative: allowing intercept evidence in court so that terrorism suspects can be prosecuted.

Back in November, Davis told the BBC that 25 Lib Dem MPs and possibly as many Tories would vote against retaining control orders under any guise. Could the coalition be about to face its first major rebellion?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage