Nick Clegg: "it's not obvious what one can do in a way that is consistent with our legal obligations". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nick Clegg: “It’s not obvious” what the UK can do legally on new terror powers

The Deputy Prime Minister admits that effectively stripping suspected terrorists of their UK citizenship is difficult in terms of Britain’s legal obligations.

David Cameron announced to the Commons yesterday, when discussing strengthening Britain’s anti-terror legislation, that the government would continue talks on preventing Britons fighting with Islamic State (formerly known as Isis) returning to Britain, alongside additional powers to seize passports of suspects. This was a softer line than was being briefed over the weekend, which suggested the Tories in government’s strong intentions to introduce new measures to effectively strip suspects of citizenship.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, although obfuscating on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, did hint that this plan would be too difficult to achieve within the international law to which the UK is bound.

Discussing the proposals related to suspects’ passports, he admitted: “At the moment, it is not obvious what one can do in a way that is consistent with our legal obligations. The prime minister, quite rightly, said we are not going to do anything which clashes with both our domestic and international legal principles and obligations.”

He then went on twice to point out that it is already possible for the authorities to confiscate individuals’ passports temporarily under the Royal Prerogative, and suggested that this existing mechanism was enough, saying “I don’t think it’s controversial” to propose confiscating suspects’ passports, “as we already have the Royal Prerogative”. He said it would give the “police and security agencies and others” a “window” of opportunity to investigate certain figures attempting to return to the UK, and arrest them if necessary.

The Lib Dem leader added that, “as a country of the rule of law”, which the UK upholds “unlike these barbaric, medieval types in Isil”, it would only legislate “in keeping with our best domestic traditions”.

However, Clegg was a bit stronger on how Britain could be led into military action against IS. Cameron told the Commons yesterday that if emergency action needed to be taken, he could decide to act and tell parliament afterwards. Clegg, however, commented that, “clearly any British government that takes a decision to be involved in military conflict should always try to seek the permission of parliament first… I cannot stress enough, I have long believed – what is now the convention – that parliament [should have the say over whether British military forces are engaged abroad] is very important.”

Although admitting that there may be “emergency reasons” to act before consulting parliament”, he insisted that the priority should be that, “it needs to be done in a way that is democratically accountable”.

It has been widely reported how the Lib Dems have been clashing with the Conservatives over the civil liberties and legal implications of the desires of the latter for new anti-terror measures. Although Clegg refused to be drawn on these disagreements, it’s clear that both the existence of a coalition, and the precedent for asking parliament whether it endorses military action, puts significant brakes on the UK government’s approach to its intervention in foreign crises.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.