There are some extraordinary things going on among the U.K. Conservatives right now. The issue is over the Government’s move to extend the period during which a terrorism suspect can be detained without trial to 42 days, something that passed the Commons yesterday despite a large Labour rebellion. Official Conservative Party policy was to oppose the move as a dangerous reduction in civil liberty.
Nevertheless, many Conservatives, including many in the party’s wider membership, supported the idea. Among them were the editors of the excellent ConservativeHome website, who wrote an editorial in support of the extension, which stirred up a firestorm of criticism. Then Gordon Brown mentioned the site as supporting him during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, leading to an apology from Tim and Sam.
Then today the Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, a strongly libertarian conservative, resigned from the House of Commons to fight a special election in his district on this very issue. Reactions have ranged across the board from those who think it a brilliant move to those who regard it as dismaying. He will be fighting a personal campaign without support from the Conservative Party, but the Liberal Democrats will not be opposing him. Iain Dale, who served as Davis’ chief of staff, has yet to comment substantively, but should be an excellent source to follow as this story develops.
Clearly the issue is one of differing, but strongly held, principles. Already it is being interpreted by the media, like the BBCs Nick Robinson, as a critical moment for David Cameron, suggesting he has lost control of his strategy. Surely, however, it is actually a great opportunity. One of the virtues of the Conservative Party used to be that it was a “broad church” (the equivalent of a “big tent” in a country with an established religion and lousy summers). This should provide David Cameron with the opportunity to show that his party can live with a variety of opinions on such an important issue and to stress the importance of principle in politics. If ever there was an opportunity to show that his party is not made up of money-grubbing careerists, this is it.