The death penalty row is as much about the Tory leadership as it is terrorism

Sajid Javid makes another iconoclastic pitch for Theresa May’s job.

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The Conservative cabinet ministers who fancy themselves as successors to Theresa May are being helpfully unsubtle, and none so much as Sajid Javid. The Home Secretary’s decision to allow two British jihadists to face trial in the United States without the usual assurances they will not face the death penalty is a particularly unedifying case in point.

Javid’s move is a more or less unprecedented one, and in that respect it is entirely coherent with the strategy he has pursued since joining the Home Office in April. Colleagues have been struck by his willingness to ostentatiously defy convention when confronted with a newsworthy challenge: first on medicinal cannabis, and now this.

That his iconoclastic streak has been exposed so often underlines several things. The first is that Theresa May lacks the authority or political bandwidth to lead from above, and the vacuum is instead filled by a cabinet of freelancers (Downing Street has confirmed only that the Prime Minister was made aware of the Home Secretary’s decision).

She has little choice but to accede to them, even if it means rewriting longstanding government policy on the hoof or, as is often the case with Javid, licencing the destruction of her legacy at the Home Office.

Just as important as May’s passivity, however, is Javid’s attack-minded approach to his brief and the publicity it inevitably yields.

Here there are obvious similarities with Gavin Williamson, who made a similar intervention on the question of how exactly Britain should deal with citizens who join the self-styled Islamic State and attempt to return.

“A dead terrorist can’t do any harm to Britain,” the Defence Secretary told the Daily Mail in November. “I do not believe that any terrorist, whether they come from this country or any other, should ever be allowed back into this country. We should do everything we can do to destroy and eliminate that threat.”

That hair-raising statement, which went straight into the bulging “Gavin Williamson leadership pitches” file, was widely derided at the time. That Javid has chosen to make the same leadership pitch in a letter to the US attorney general rather than the Mail does not make it any less of a leadership pitch.

The shape of his eventual offer to party and country is becoming clearer. He sketched out one of its contours by appointing Tom Pursglove, as hard a Brexiteer as it is possible to find in the Commons, as his parliamentary private secretary last month. Today he has done so again – only this time, he has made rather more headlines.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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