As analysts and politicians pore over the implications of the new anti-terror measures announced by David Cameron on Monday, a columnist in London’s Times newspaper has called them “bungled” and said they simply look like “an attempt merely to grab headlines.”
David Cameron has insisted he will not give a “kneejerk reaction” to the Islamist threat but it is looking increasingly as if the prime minister is playing politics with terror. Although he has deliberately not repeated Tony Blair’s declaration that the “rules of the game have changed” since the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, apparently by a British jihadist, he is doing all he can to sound tough without having the detail in place to back up the rhetoric. It’s security policy by spin at a time when the country needs protection by substance.
The government’s approach to a potentially mortal danger is at risk of descending into a shambles. On Friday Mr Cameron announced that he would bring forward a number of new anti-terrorism measures after intelligence experts raised the official threat level from “substantial” to “severe”. Journalists were briefed over the weekend that the law would be changed to make it easier to remove the passports of British citizens travelling to areas controlled by Islamic State extremists. There were proposals to enhance the intelligence services’ access to airline passenger lists. The most eye-catching suggestion was that British jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria would be banned from re-entering Britain. The details of the package had, however, neither been thought through nor agreed with the Lib Dems.
Within hours, the proposal to stop British nationals returning to this country was unravelling, with senior politicians from all parties warning that it would be illegal and unworkable. Downing Street was unable to provide details of where these UK citizens would end up, raising the prospect of a zombie army of stateless extremists who would be impossible to trace, or a shadow troop of jihadists shuttling between airport departure lounges in different countries. Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, the former director of public prosecutions, who is now a Lib Dem peer, says that Downing Street is living in “la-la land” if it thinks such a policy could be implemented because it would depend on countries such as Turkey and Germany accepting UK extremists. “It’s security policy by announcement, an incredibly shallow response to a deadly serious problem,” he told me. “The real issue is that we have got to try and put these people behind bars.”
Dominic Grieve, the Conservative former attorney-general, echoed his concerns in the Commons, warning that excluding British citizens from returning to their country would “offend the basic principles” of international and domestic law.
By yesterday, when Mr Cameron gave his statement to MPs, he said only that he would consider the options in cross-party talks, emphasising the importance of closing “gaps” in this country’s defences. Allies of Nick Clegg said that the deputy prime minister would “need to be persuaded” that any change was “necessary and workable”. There is a growing sense of chaos, combining cock-up with a whiff of conspiracy about the government’s approach.
Read more at The Times website