Ed Miliband speaks at the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband exploits the coalition divide on anti-terror powers

The Labour leader drove a wedge between Cameron and Clegg on civil liberties.

After the beheading of a second US journalist by Isis, and the threat to murder a British hostage, the first PMQs of the new term was an appropriately sombre occasion. David Cameron and Ed Miliband both delivered powerful condemnations of the terrorist group, the former declaring "A country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers" and the latter speaking of a "universal sense of revulsion". 

After asking Cameron what the UK was doing to mobilise nations in the region against Isis and how it would use its chairing of the UN Security Council (avoiding the issue of whether the UK will take part in US-led airstrikes), Miliband moved on to the thorny issue of the coalition's domestic response. After the confusion that followed Cameron's statement on anti-terror powers on Monday, with the Lib Dems casting doubt over the plans announced by the PM, Miliband challenged him to confirm whether the reintroduction of relocation powers for terrorist suspects (forcing them to move home) would go ahead. In response, Cameron said that "it will go ahead", despite the Lib Dems briefing on Monday that "We have not definitively signed up to introducing relocation powers. We have agreed to look in detail at the options". While repeating his promise of cross-party talks on the issue, the PM's words appeared to be another attempt to bounce the Lib Dems into support. 

Miliband then asked Cameron whether his proposal to block British jihadists from returning home would be legally permissible (Clegg commented yesterday that "At the moment it is not obvious what one can do in a way which is consistent with our legal obligations". He replied: "I do believe it is legally permissible, but it’s going to require some work". In other words, the situation is no clearer than it was earlier this week. But Miliband's intervention effectively drove a wedge between the coalition parties on civil liberties. On an issue as significant as national security, the impression of a divided government is damaging for Cameron. 

The two other notable points from the session were the passion with which Cameron made the case against Scottish independence, and the increasingly perilous position of the Speaker, John Bercow. On Scotland, after a YouGov poll showed the Yes campaign just six points behind, the PM denounced the SNP's scaremongering over the NHS ("The only person who can privatise the NHS in Scotland is Alex Salmond") and its "chilling" threat to default on its share of the national debt.

In response to Tory MP Edward Leigh, who warned that a Yes vote would be "a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions" and who urged the party leaders to drop everything and stand "shoulder to shoulder" in defence of the Union, Cameron said: "The leaders of the parties in this House have all put aside their differences and said ‘in spite of the political differences we have, we all agree about one thing – not just that Scotland is better off inside the UK, the UK is better off with Scotland." Despite his party's enfeebled status in Scotland, today's exchanges were a reminder that Cameron is one of the most powerful defenders of the Union. 

After PMQs had concluded, Bercow faced a barrage of points of order from Tory MPs over the disputed appointment of Carol Mills as Clerk of the House. Such was the ferocity with which they attacked the Speaker (who many have long loathed since his election under Labour) that Edward Leigh was forced to urge the House to respect his authority. While most believe Bercow will ride the row out, his position has never looked so weak; irrevocable damage has now been done to his standing in the Commons.

Update: The Lib Dems have just issued a response to Cameron's comments on anti-terror powers. On blocking British suspects from returning home, a spokesman said:

"This issue remains under discussion in government and we have always said that we would be prepared to sign up to something that was both legal and practical."

"This is a very legally complicated issue and needs to be examined very closely."

And on relocation powers, he said:

“The issue of introducing relocation powers remains under discussion in government. We have agreed to look in detail at the options available to us.

“The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, whose views we respect, recently recommended that the Government look at locational constraints that can be put on TPIMs suspects to make it easier to disrupt their networks and to reduce the risk of absconding.

“As a result, the Liberal Democrats are willing to look in more detail at options, including at whether the use of exclusion zones under the existing legislation could be expanded to meet the concerns that Anderson raises.”

As I expected, both suggest a far more ambiguous situation than Cameron's words implied. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.