All too often in recent history, governments have used terrorist attacks as a pretext to further erode civil liberties, so David Cameron was rightly commended for his declaration yesterday that there would be no “knee-jerk” response to the events in Woolwich. In the hours after the murder, John Reid, the former Labour home secretary, Lord West, the former security minister, and Lord Carlile, a Lib Dem peer and a former government reviewer of counter-terrorism, all argued that the attack demonstrated the need to revive the communications data bill or “snooper’s charter”, which was excluded from the Queen’s Speech after Nick Clegg’s intervention. But Cameron’s words reassured liberals that the government would not be pushed into hasty legislation. To invert Tony Blair, the rules of the game have not changed.
But on last night’s Question Time, Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, suggested that she and others are more sympathetic to the calls from Reid and co. She said:
I’m very supportive of legislation on communications data, I think it would help us in combating terrorism.
Elsewhere, today’s Independent reports that Theresa May, who has previously accused opponents of the bill of “putting politics before people’s lives”, is “determined” to act. A Tory tells the paper: “The Home Secretary is very keen to do something shortly that includes at least some of this Bill. I suspect any opportunity to strengthen pressure on the naysayers will be taken. She is absolutely determined to do something on this.”
What is not clear is whether Villiers and May only have in mind changes to make sure all mobiles are linked to IP addresses, something Clegg is willing to consider (and which may not require primary legislation), or whether they hope to revive the bill in its original form, which would require internet service providers to retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year. But however modest or severe the proposals, the coalition is heading for further division over this. A spokesman for Clegg simply said: “There are already substantial powers in place to track the communications of criminals and terrorists.”