Letter from Westminster 20.06.08
A NUMBER of commentators have described last week at Westminster as a “roller coaster week”.
They are right in as much as it had its share of ups and downs, but at least with a roller coaster you can see when you might expect to be going up or down. For Westminster last week there was no such predictability.
As I left the Commons last Wednesday, muttering darkly about the Democratic Unionists being bought off to give Gordon Brown his majority on the proposal for 42-day detention without charge, I reflected that perhaps for the first time in some time Brown had managed to get himself some positive headlines in the next day’s newspapers.
In fact that analysis changed at about 10pm when the lead item on the BBC news was not about the vote in parliament but rather about top secret documents analysing our anti-terror capability that had been left on a commuter train in London.
This was a big story and one which would cause difficulty for the government over some days. It was difficult to see what would knock that off the top news spot. In fact Thursday lunchtime brought a new political bombshell which must have caused many a minister and mandarin in Whitehall to heave a sigh of relief.
David Davis, the Tory shadow home secretary, announced that he was so disgusted with the government’s attack on our civil liberties that he was going to resign his seat in the commons, fight a by-election and spark a national debate on the issue.
This was by far the most unpredictable event of the week. Even now, almost a week later, it is impossible to see whether this is a move of inspiration or madness.
He is right. We do need a national debate on this. But if he can’t start one as shadow home secretary then I am not sure that fighting a three week by-election campaign in one East Yorkshire constituency as an independent candidate and with none of the other main parties taking part is going to be much more successful. I shall be delighted to be wrong.
Unnecessary by-elections do not usually attract high turnouts and if they do then it is usually only to punish the party causing the by-election. A victory for Davis but on a low turn out really does not take us forward any distance.
This may help generate a national debate but it will not, I fear, be one of big ideas and high political principles. As so often in politics, we shall have to wait and see.
Just when we thought we had had all our surprises for one week along came the Irish on Friday with their no-vote on the Lisbon Treaty.
It remains to be seen what happens with the treaty now but it is clearer than ever that further integration within the EU will only happen once the political elite in the capitals across Europe realise that Europe is a game for us all to play – not just them.
Alistair Carmichael MP