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31 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:10am

Theresa May’s dilemma

Is the Home Secretary being played by the securocrats?

By Jonathan Derbyshire

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning and reiterated the government’s promise to “rebalance” the relationship between security and civil liberties (a relationship that the coalition has been quite right to argue was skewed disastrously towards the former under Labour).

That’s easier said than done, of course, and a very interesting column by Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer suggests that May has already allowed herself to be outmanoeuvred by the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, over control orders.

Evans wants to retain the ability to detain terrorist suspects without charge, but a review of Labour’s anti-terror legislation by Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, is likely to recommend the ending of control orders on the grounds that they are offensive to the principles of natural justice. Rawnsley writes:

The Evans line has prevailed within the Home Office. The [Macdonald] review has gone to ministers with the recommendation that control orders should be retained. It proposes that detention without charge should be reduced to 14 days, but with an option for suspects to be put on a further 14 days of “very restricted bail”, which would introduce the control order concept into another part of the law.

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The review’s conclusions were supposed to have been made public at the end of September. Then publication was kicked back to the end of October. That is because weeks of fierce internal argument have resulted in deadlock. Lord Macdonald has not changed his views. He recently warned the Home Secretary that he will write a dissenting report. This has put Theresa May in a funk. A surprise choice for Home Secretary, she came to the job with no history of engaging in the delicate judgements the role demands. She has already signed off on two new control orders. Insiders believe an inexperienced Home Secretary has been easily captured by securicrats who are always reluctant to give up powers once they have them. She has come down on their side, but knows it will be hugely embarrassing for the government if it publishes their recommendations only for Lord Macdonald then to denounce them. Ms May went to No 10 a fortnight ago for a difficult meeting with David Cameron and Nick Clegg. When she revealed that they had hit this impasse, both men were horrified. David Cameron told the meeting: “We are heading for a fucking car crash.”

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A car crash in which the principal victims will be the pre-election promises on civil liberties made by both the Tories and the Lib Dems, and the minsterial career of Theresa May.

All political careers end in failure, of course; but those of home secretaries tend to end more quickly and ignominiously than most.