Alert: Police officers in Downing Street after Home Secretary Theresa May raised the UK's terror threat level to 'severe', 29 August. Photo: Getty
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David Cameron to announce new plan to tackle Islamic extremist threat

The Prime Minister will make a statement in the Commons later today as parliament returns after recess and the coalition continues this morning negotiating how to widen anti-terror laws.

Following the news last week that the government has raised the terror threat level to “extreme”, David Cameron is expected to set out in the Commons how the government plans to widen anti-terror legislation, as parliament returns after recess today.

As conflict in Iraq and Syria builds, there is a mounting concern in the UK about those British nationals who are travelling overseas to join the jihadists, who may then return and pose a direct terror threat to the UK. Cameron is to speak specifically about how best to deal with British national jihadists either travelling to or returning from these zones. He promises to close what he sees as “gaps in our armoury” when it comes to anti-terror laws.

However, it won’t be that simple for Cameron. Although a matter that is clearly of highest priority to the government – whether it’s a “knee-jerk reaction”, as Paddy Ashdown and others have called it, just to look like it’s doing something, or a genuinely necessary response to a very real threat – it has become a subject of coalition contention.

The Lib Dems have clashed with the Tories over the latter’s wishes for expanding existing anti-terror legislation. It is reported that the Conservatives in government want to introduce new measures to seize passports, and also impose temporary bans on fighters travelling back from foreign conflicts. Under these new proposals, if a Briton was thought to have been involved in terrorism abroad, they could be prevented from returning to the UK for some time, although allowed to retain British citizenship, according to the BBC.

However, the Lib Dems – including high-profile figures who have been heavily involved in foreign policy in the past, such as former leader Paddy Ashdown, and current MP and former leader Ming Campbell – are concerned about the legality of these measures. Nick Clegg has been locked in talks with Cameron over the weekend, regarding the government’s response to the terror threat unfolding in light of intensifying terror acts by Islamic State (formerly known as Isis).

Also, UN conventions on statelessness mean that the government could be breaking international law with such measures as stripping people's passports, and denying them access to Britain. Tory MP and barrister Edward Garnier warned the Today programme this morning that, "parliament can pass any law it likes, but the government is already bound by two UN conventions on statelessness."

Clegg and the Lib Dems are concerned about the encroachment on civil liberties of the Tories’ proposals, and also warn about the potential illegality of rendering citizens stateless, even if done so temporarily. The Lib Dems have been accused of putting a brake on the government’s action against terrorism, although Tory Defence Secretary Michael Fallon denied this, and the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and Labour MP Hazel Blears called on the Deputy Prime Minister to “get off this kind of high horse that he’s on” and drop his opposition to the controversial control orders.

Indeed, Labour, at odds with the caution of the Lib Dems, has been calling for the return of powers allowing authorities to put jihadists under close surveillance and enabling them to force jihadists to move away from their homes if necessary, placing restrictions on their movements.

The Prime Minister will address the Commons later today, laying out the government’s plans, but his talks with the Lib Dems are likely to continue this morning, revealing the last-minute nature of the agreement over new anti-terror measures, and also hinting that the new plan will be watered down from that which the Tories were initially hoping for.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.