42 days: what do Conservatives really think?

by Stephen Tall on June 11, 2008

As I write, I haven’t yet seen the Commons roll-call of votes to find out how many (or indeed if any) Tory MPs joined Ann Widdecombe in voting with Labour on 42 days detention without charge. We do know, though, that the proposal enjoys the support of ConservativeHome.com, the provisional wing of the authentic Tory party:

Today’s terrorists attack without warning. They are willing to use mentally ill children as suicide bombers. They want to kill as many people as possible. They don’t want some of our territory. They won’t be satisfied until we are destroyed or enslaved. … Our defences must match the scale of the threat. … A clear majority of the British people favour a longer detention period. We believe that the British people are right. They won’t readily forgive any politicians who allow a major atrocity to occur because our detention procedures prove to be inadequate.

So, what is the true view of the Tory party? And what would they do if they found themselves as the next government?

To be clear: I don’t doubt for one second the integrity of David Davis, the Tories’ shadow home secretary, in opposing Labour’s draconian 42 days proposal. He is one of many Tories who have shown themselves to understand the importance of defending hard-won freedoms. But what if Mr Davis weren’t to be the Tories’ home secretary? What then? Would his successor stick to his guns?

That the question can legitimately be asked shows how fragile is the current Tory leadership’s commitment to opposing the Government’s careless junking of individuals’ liberties. As Lib Dem blogger James Graham is fond of pointing out:

I don’t know if Cameron is the liberal he claims to be or not and to an extent that is irrelevant. What I’m concerned about is how a Cameron government would behave in the face of a reactionary Conservative backbench of the kind we are likely to continue to see for decades to come. His approach since becoming leader has been to avoid confrontation where possible, and capitulate where not. In this respect he is very different from Tony Blair circa 1995. Blair loved to face down his detractors in the party; that’s why the “demon eyes” approach was so unconvincing. With Cameron, we really do seem to be getting a Tory wolf in woolly liberal’s clothing.