By Rosa Prince | Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, is preparing to make a rare intervention into domestic policies by speaking out against Government plans to increase detention without trial to 42 days.
In private, Sir John has been telling friends for some time that he believes the plans to be profoundly illiberal and counter productive in the campaign to stamp out home-grown terrorism.
He plans to go public with his concerns, in what will be one of his first forays into current political debates since he was swept from power in 1997.
As a respected elder statesman, Sir John’s words are likely to provide a significant boost to those opposing the Government’s attempts to force the 42 day increase through the Commons next week.
His experiences as a broker of the early stages of the peace process in Northern Ireland give him a unique insight into governing in the face of an on-going terrorist threat.
A friend of the former Prime Minister told The Daily Telegraph: “Sir John has always been very reluctant to stray into domestic politics, but the 42 day proposals are so clearly unjust that he feels the time has come to speak up.
“He knows exactly what it is like to sit at Number 10 and worry that innocent citizens could fall victim to a terrorist bomb plot at any time.
“In fact, unlike Gordon Brown, he has actually been the victim of an attempted assassination, when the IRA mortared Downing Street.
“But Sir John feels that if we compromise with our civil liberties, particularly over something as crucial as detention without trial, then the terrorists will have won the battle.
“He hopes that MPs from all political parties will have the courage to stand firm on this, and not give the terrorists a boost by sacrificing this important aspect of the British way of life.”
Sir John’s intervention comes as the Government does everything possible to apply pressure on reluctant Labour MPs to back the 42 day legislation, which comes before the Commons on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, won over a number of potential rebels with a persuasive speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The Daily Telegraph understands that she closed her address with an appeal to party loyalty, telling MPs: “I need you.”
One minister who supports the legislation said: “We have not won the argument in any way, but we will still win the vote, ironically because the Government is in so much trouble in other ways.
“Jacqui’s speech really had an impact, and the backbenchers are openly saying that they will hold their nose and vote for it because Gordon can’t take any more rebellions.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the Church of England have written to MPs saying they remain opposed to the extension of detention without charge to 42 days, despite the concessions given by the Government earlier this week.
In a letter, the Church said: “We believe that a convincing case for the extension of the maximum period of detention without charge beyond 28 days has not been made out. This central point has not been addressed in the various “concessions” or adjustments to the proposal offered by the Government in recent weeks. We believe that any extension beyond 28 days will unacceptably disturb the balance between the liberty of the individual and the needs of national security.”