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Once merely messianic, Blair is now unhinged

Michael Portillo

Identity cards will not make us safer. That is the view of Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, speaking in Birmingham last week. That opinion must have earned her the prime minister’s contempt. He likes to cite support from the security services or top policemen each time he devises a proposal to limit our historic liberties.

The sniffy response from No 10 was that Rimington was a private individual who was entitled to her opinion. It was a stupid way to describe one who had spent her career defeating terrorism. Her intervention further weakened the government’s flimsy case. Its ID cards bill got a further mauling in the Lords.

The more pigheadedly the prime minister persists with the legislation the less we trust him. Britain faces substantial dangers from terror. It would be good if we could have faith in our national political leader. He assures us that drastic measures are needed to protect us. But he has lost our confidence.

Blair’s problem is not that people have a distrust of slippery politicians, nor merely that they are fed up with his government’s spin and sleaze. The difficulty is rather that the prime minister has shown that we should rely on him least on what matters most: national security.

When he devised the dodgy dossier on Iraq and led us to believe that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, he sacrificed credibility. He has been damaged further by the claim from Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to Washington, that he could have secured a delay to the American plan for war against Iraq. The search for WMD could have gone on for longer. The charge has come at a bad moment for No 10.

The prime minister’s loss of the public’s trust is scarcely new. However, in recent weeks his judgment has deserted him too. Much of what he now does and says appears irrational. Why, for example, does a man almost obsessed with defeating the yob culture press on with deregulating pub hours as though his life depended on it? It was laughably inconsistent for the government last week to give the police new powers to tackle public drunkenness on the same day that it forced 24-hour drinking through the Commons.

Normally politicians are accused of doing anything to get elected. But more puzzlingly when leaders have been around too long (both Margaret Thatcher and Blair are examples) they press on stubbornly with laws that can do them only harm. The pubs legislation has few backers. It cannot possibly win Labour votes. There is not even any sign that Blair is personally interested in it. The bill survives solely because of government hubris. Ministers dare not rethink it because the administration would lose face.

A still more vivid example of Blair’s self-destructive tendency was his insistence that the police should be allowed to hold terror suspects for 90 days without charge. That led to the government’s massive defeat in the Commons. He had utterly failed to convince. His case that only 90 days would do was an assertion rather than an argument.

The prime minister’s job is to weigh, not merely swallow, the advice that he receives. It is hardly surprising that some police officers asked for 90 days. They may have calculated that Blair would halve their bid and that parliament would quarter it. They were probably as dismayed as the rest of us that Blair took their proposal at face value and tried to push it through.

Charles Clarke, the home secretary, is as fully briefed on the terrorist threat as Blair is. Yet he had repeatedly indicated that compromise on a shorter period of detention would be acceptable. Clarke has often been the victim of negative briefing from No 10. At a time like this you need to keep your friends. After the catastrophic vote, Blair made public remarks that seemed to blame the party’s whips. That too is foolish. He might remember that the whips’ abandonment of Thatcher was one factor in her downfall.

While the prime minister’s own party was setting limits to his authoritarianism, Republican senators were reining back their president. The upper house passed John McCain’s amendment to a defence bill, which bans Americans from subjecting prisoners to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. The senator has special moral authority since he was tortured during his five years as a prisoner of the Vietcong. President Bush has said he will veto the bill if the amendment is not reversed.

Could our terrorist enemies ever have imagined how easily America and Britain would abandon their moral high ground? Both Bush and Blair are zealots: men with a mission. They think that to appear tough they must take dramatic, exceptional measures. They believe that they face a unique threat, which is absurd when you consider what massive evils our countries fought and overcame during the 20th century. They would inspire more confidence if they displayed a greater sense of perspective and accorded proper value to our inherited liberties. The prime minister has lost his sense of proportion. He may even think proportionality has no place in the fight against terror. He is wrong.

For 30 years Britain was attacked by Irish terrorists. Three thousand people died. Pubs were blown up. A member of the royal family was murdered. An attempt was made to assassinate the prime minister and the cabinet in a Brighton hotel. A mortar bomb was fired at Downing Street. The government of the day responded in general with modest exceptions to our traditional liberties, which Blair voted against. When the government occasionally went too far in its emergency measures — as with internment without trial in Northern Ireland — it was obliged to backtrack.

Of course Al-Qaeda might do worse things than the IRA did. But even so our response has to be proportionate. That applies equally to the liberties that we are asked to surrender and to the economic costs that we are forced to bear.

That is how the case for identity cards should be measured. The argument that they could improve our security is weak, as Rimington highlighted. They could be obtained with forged documents, and foreign visitors will not need them. It is most unlikely that terrorists will identify themselves with genuine identity cards when buying a mobile phone (as the Madrid bombers did) unless they are suicide bombers who will not care if they do.

But suppose for a moment that identity cards could be proved to make us somewhat safer. Would that be worth £30 billion, which is the revised estimate of the cost judged by the London School of Economics? If we were going to spend £30 billion on improving our security could we not deploy it better on something other than identity cards, which are clearly as watertight as a colander?

Suppose, on the other hand, that the best argument for identity cards is that they would cut benefit fraud. Is there any prospect that we could save on misappropriated payments more than we had spent on introducing the cards? Last week the government disputed the LSE cost estimate but could offer no calculation of its own, and could claim only that savings on fraud might be a few hundred million.

It is a recognised paradox that government appraises huge items of expenditure less carefully than small ones. But there are signs that the chancellor of the exchequer gets the point. Under a Brown premiership the numbers, more than a concern for civil liberties, will kill the legislation. Cost/benefit analysis has never been Blair’s strong suit. The problem now is worse than that. He fails absolutely to think his policies through.

I fear that the prime minister has become unhinged. He has always tended towards being messianic. Now he is more convinced than ever that he is right and everyone else wrong. Neither the views of parliament nor the home secretary count for anything. He courts unpopularity, outrages his supporters and has lost his instinct for survival. Logic plays little part in his calculations and economics none.

As recently as last summer I, like many others, believed that Blair was the man to lead Britain in a crisis. The alternative was Gordon Brown, once famously described by a Blair aide as “psychologically flawed”. While I do not dispute that description of the chancellor, the prime minister’s psychiatric advantage over his rival is clearly narrowing.