The news that the coalition is set to scrap control orders leaves Labour facing its own policy dilemma. Since his election as leader, Ed Miliband has pledged to remake Labour as a party of civil liberties but has said little on control orders.
The best guide we have to the party’s position is Ed Balls’s recent interview with Andrew Marr. The shadow home secretary supported the coalition’s plan to cut the pre-charge detention period from 28 to 14 days but was noticeably more ambiguous about control orders.
I think control orders is a tougher one because, look, if you were starting from a blank sheet of paper, you would never want to have any kind of unlimited detention. On the other hand, what was clear back in 2005 is there were people who were a real threat but couldn’t be charged. And what did you do? And I understand why those decisions were made.
I think the jury’s still out on this one. If the security services and the police can persuade the Home Secretary there’s alternatives to control orders – it could be travel restrictions, it could be more surveillance – then we should support that. Consensus is the right thing. I think on that one, the jury’s still out. We don’t yet know whether an alternative to control orders can work.
Miliband is certain to resist the temptation to label the coalition as “soft on terror” but others in his party may not. On Twitter, the Labour MP Pat McFadden declares: “Control orders: the PM’s duty is to protect the public, not ‘look after’ the Lib Dems.”
To portray the move as a sop to the Lib Dems isn’t wholly accurate. Several of the ministers pushing hardest against control orders are Tories, including the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. Conversely, Lord Carlile, who today warns the government against scrapping control orders, is a Lib Dem peer. But, as Norman Tebbit recognises, the charge that David Cameron has put the interests of the Lib Dems before the interests of the public is a potent one.
Miliband’s instinct will be to support the abolition of control orders and to back what are described as “mitigating measures”. But, once again, he may find himself at odds with a significant number of his MPs.