Dead Men Left

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

ID cards, the Tories, and the "war on terror"

Michael Howard, very opportunistically, but not without a little skill, steered the Tories into opposing then Education Secretary Charles Clarke's plans for market-determined tutition fees in English universities. Free market principles be damned: into the "no" lobby went the Conservative MPs, attempting to capitalise on strong public opposition to the measure. With Labour MPs split, the government came achingly close to defeat. What a turnaround, I thought at the time, from the pleasingly useless Iain Duncan Smith who, presented with a similar opportunity to stuff up the government, chose to back the invasion of Iraq. The Tories have been paying for this ever since: unable to parasite in any form on antiwar opposition, they have been left high and dry on the issue, with the Liberal Democrats being the sole mainstream political beneficiaries.

Yet, presented now by ID cards, an issue upon which a clear lead could have imposed a similar blow to the government - and most particularly the shaky new Home Secretary, one Charles Clarke - Howard has led them into tail-ending the government's plans. The "war on terror" can exert a remarkable pull on official politics: as soon as the question of "security" was raised, the Tories fell into line. (I say "the Tories": I mean the Tory leadership only, as you can see demonstrated here.) Apparent poll support for ID cards is misleading; stripped of its "war on terror" rhetoric, and with the cost of the scheme laid out, it disappears entirely. It's no wonder the government believes it can win the next general election on "security": the official opposition is nowhere to be seen on the issue.