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The coalition’s next car crash

Control orders have the potential to split and realign all three political parties.

Nick Clegg may have returned from his holiday in Spain refreshed but another major political row awaits him – as well as the leaders of the other two main parties. Could the obscure issue of control orders, a form of house arrest based on secret evidence for those suspected of involvement in terrorism, become as toxic an issue for the Lib Dem leader in 2011 as the tuition fees hike was in 2010?

The new year brought the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. On 4 January, prompted by media reports that the coalition was discussing whether to scrap control orders, they joined forces to warn the British public of the dangers of such a move. They were the Tory Michael Howard and the New Labour trio of David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid. The rhetoric was pernicious. Blunkett said that such a move would be "treachery". Reid said: "If it's a choice between the political convenience of Nick Clegg and our security, then security must come first." That opposition to control orders might be driven by a concern for human rights did not seem to have occurred to this one-time stalwart of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Parliamentary ping-pong

Not only are control orders illiberal – the "trademark of despots", to borrow a phrase from Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti – they are also not particularly effective at catching or deterring terrorists. As Reid conceded in January 2007, in the midst of his brief stint as home secretary, control orders are "weak, they are hard for the police to implement [and] they involve massive manpower from the police and security services to try to carry out surveillance".

Meanwhile, Michael "Prison Works" Howard has performed a spectacular U-turn on this issue. As leader of his party in March 2005, he co-ordinated the parliamentary opposition to the introduction of control orders in both houses, forcing elderly Tory peers to stay awake all night in a session of "parliamentary ping-pong" that lasted 30 hours. How much ping-pong can we expect this time?

The Lib Dem manifesto promised to abolish control orders; the coalition agreement merely promised an "urgent review". In October, David Cameron was said to have told Clegg that the coalition was heading for a "fucking car crash" on this issue; the publication of the review – which was conducted rather conveniently inside the Home Office by counterterrorism officials – has already been postponed from October to December and now to an unspecified date later this month. Ministers are expected to agree on a compromise at the next coalition cabinet meeting, on 11 January.

Clegg cannot afford to execute another volte-face on a major Lib Dem policy pledge – nor could he, say, blame the Budget deficit for having to sign up to such draconian measures. Recent reports suggest that the Deputy Prime Minister has secured concessions from Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who, like her Labour predecessors, seems to have been "captured" by the securocrats inside Whitehall who want to keep control orders. Those subject to the orders would be given limited access to phones and the internet and would be able to move more freely around the country, though not abroad.

There is a catch for Clegg. The Lib Dem peer and former director of public prosecutions (DPP) Ken Macdonald has been charged with overseeing the Home Office review. I understand that he has not softened his long-held opposition to control orders: he plans to publish a report condemning any retention of restrictions on a terror suspect's ability to leave his home to meet particular people or visit specific locations. "If his report comes out against the coalition's compromise on control orders, that will leave Nick Clegg in a rather embarrassing position," says a senior Lib Dem figure.

It is worth noting that the revolt by Lib Dem MPs against the tuition fee increase last month was proportionally bigger than the Labour backbench rebellion over the Iraq war in 2003. And, as on tuition fees, Clegg's two predecessors on the back benches, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, have indicated that they would vote against any continuation of control orders. But it would be a mistake to see this debate through the prism of Lib Dems v Tories, or of Clegg v the rest. The Conservatives have long been split over control orders. The party, Cameron included, voted against their introduction six years ago. "[The home secretary] has made no case at all to explain why he comes here seeking greater powers than any home secretary in modern times has had over British citizens," declared Kenneth Clarke (now Justice Secretary) in a Commons debate in February 2005. "It is a departure from our established principles and threatens our liberties greatly," said Dominic Grieve (now Attorney General) in the same debate.

Populist posturing

Then there is David Davis. The former Tory shadow home secretary and one-time leadership contender told the BBC in November 2010 that up to 25 Lib Dem MPs and possibly as many Tories, if not more, would vote against moves to keep control orders, in any shape or form. He is, says a friend, "preparing to kick up a fuss about this on the back benches" if Clegg secures only a "dilution" of control orders.

What of Her Majesty's Opposition? Isn't it time for the Labour Party to stand up for liberty, after 13 years of populist posturing and oppressive legislation? Ed Miliband used his first conference speech as party leader to pledge that he wouldn't "let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty", nor would he gratuitously accuse the coalition of being "soft on terrorism". I understand that the Labour leader is opposed to control orders but his shadow home secretary, Ed Balls, is "wavering" on the issue. Balls, however, has publicly stated that he would be willing to consider less restrictive alternatives to control orders and has met with Lord Macdonald in recent weeks to hear the arguments against them.

In the coming weeks, Miliband must persuade Balls to back him on control orders in the same way that he succeeded in pulling his shadow chancellor in line over a graduate tax – for reasons of principle and politics. Compared to the VAT rise or the coming cuts, rows over human rights and civil liberties might seem like eccentric, bourgeois concerns; yet control orders have the potential to split and realign all three political parties and, as with most issues these days, could give Nick Clegg a particular headache.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze