The scale of the humiliation doubtless was exacerbated by the intervention of Tony McNulty.
The defeat of the proposal to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days in the new Counter Terrorism Bill has been defeated in the House of Lords by 191 votes, prompting the hapless Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to withdraw the measure.
The scale of the government’s humiliation doubtless was exacerbated by the tactless intervention of Tony McNulty, the junior security minister who had attacked the former MI5 director-general, Eliza Manningham-Buller, who had opposed the Bill in her maiden speech in the Lords.
Widely criticised within the intelligence community, McNulty then lobbied for a promotion, and tipped himself through leaks to political correspondents for the Chief Whip’s job after the reshuffle. In the event, Gordon Brown’s doughty supporter Nick Brown was appointed.
The Home Office ministerial team remains a shambles, and the fact that no less than two former Labour Lord Chancellors, Lords Falconer and Irvine, walked into the ‘Not Content’ lobby demonstrates the incompetence. At no time have the ministers explained why the 42 days were really needed.
Eventually they fell back on the argument that the extension was merely a contingency precaution, only to be deployed in the event of an emergency, but their Lordships were unconvinced. Those that attended the Labour party conference at Brighton will remember the appalling spectacle of an elderly heckler, who had interrupted Jack Straw, being bundled out of the building and into the hands of the police who detained him, asserting he posed a terrorist threat.
The truth is that the police will always apply whatever powers are granted to them, and the opportunity to question a suspect, or threat to do so, for six weeks would be irresistible. Some senior officers may be sensitive to civil liberty issues, but their subordinates will naturally seize on the best instruments available to achieve results.
The one curiosity that emerges out of this debacle is what McNulty thought he was doing. Nobody supported him, and significantly MI5 sidestepped the controversy when challenged to express a view from the professionals. Actually, Manningham-Buller spoke for the Security Service, but McNulty was too obtuse to spot what was happening in his own area of ministerial responsibility. In other times a minister would have resigned in the face of such a humiliation. How the times changeth!