Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 12:01 UK

Why terror limit 'third way' is likely

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Within a fortnight MPs will vote on the government's plans to detain terrorist suspects for up to 42 days without charge - and at stake is not just the security of the public, but the job security of the prime minister.

An armed police officer
The government's amendments will be tabled next week
For the past few weeks intense discussions have taken place at the highest levels of government, once the Whips had made it clear that about 50 Labour MPs - enough to defeat the government in a vote - had doubts about the legislation.

So the prime minster and senior cabinet ministers have been discussing three options.

First, whether to make a virtue of defeat.

The prime minister had already indicated he would "do the right thing" rather than compromise, and he could therefore try to portray the opposition as soft on terror.

Those who have been advising the prime minister to adopt this course point out that increasing the detention period for terrorist suspects is actually popular, unlike the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

So, this is a good place to draw a dividing line between Labour and both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Those who have urged caution suggested that a government defeat might inflict a near-fatal blow to the prime minister's authority.

The latter camp have won the day and the option of "glorious defeat" has been abandoned.

'Third way'

Second, senior figures discussed making a radical compromise that would all but defuse the Labour rebellion and might even build a political consensus with the opposition parties.

This would have involved only using the power to extend detention in the case of a national emergency, where there were multiple terror plots, and only with Parliamentary approval.

This is very close to the existing Civil Contingencies Act, which the Conservatives favour using in these circumstances, and which can allow detention for up to 58 days without charge.

But this too has been abandoned as it may have appeared like just too much of a climbdown following the 10p tax row and hints of a possible U-turn on fuel tax.

And a small number of Labour rebels would not have backed it anyway.

So in the past couple of days the government has decided to adopt a "third way", to coin a phrase.

Although about 50 MPs have doubts about the 42-day detention, the calculation is that 20 to 25 of them might be won over be a series of concessions - enough to ensure a narrow government victory.

Debate 'irrelevant'

So next week the government will table a series of amendments to its own legislation.

The substance of some of them has been floated with some of the potential rebels, so this is what it looks like the government will do.

Under the current bill, the home secretary would make a statement to the Commons within two days of deciding to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days.

However, Parliament might not get a chance to vote on it for another 30 days - and the government will amend this to reduce the period to seven to 10 days.

That concession will not be enough on its own for the government to win the vote.

Some rebels say a Parliamentary debate is irrelevant as they cannot discuss the details of the case for fear that it might prejudice a future trial.

So, some other options are being discussed.

One which was floated with some rebels regarded the 28-day limit being exceeded - but rather than detaining the suspect, they would in effect be put on a control order, tagged and monitored.

It is not certain the government will pursue this, though.

DUP concessions

Where the government has most chance of success is by increasing the threshold at which the 42-day detention starts.

I am told this might mean more clearly defining the "exceptional circumstances" in which it could be used.

At the moment a chief constable and the Director of Public Prosecutions have to agree there is an "exceptional operational need" for the power.

But if Parliament gets involved earlier in the process, and if "exceptional operational need" was defined as multiple terror plots, then more rebels would almost certainly be peeled off.

There is also talk of more judicial oversight or judicial review of the power to extend detention.

If a judge, as well as a prosecutor and a chief constable, approved the extension to 42 days, then this might also help to win over some rebels.

The government is also keen to gain the votes of the nine Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs to give them a bit of a cushion against a Labour rebellion.

While there is no evidence of any deals being struck, sources suggest possibilities might see the DUP getting a seat on the Intelligence and Security Committee, and for the proceeds from the sale of surplus Army land in Northern Ireland to remain in the province.

So even committed Labour rebels believe the final vote will be very close and hope that if the government wins narrowly, the Lords will then reject the 42-day detention.

It is clear, however, that it will not just be high-minded arguments on which Labour Whips will rely when talking to the rebels.

They will be asked whether the liberty of terrorist suspects is really more important than the stability of the Labour government.

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