Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown has hit out at David Cameron over his response to the threat posed by British jihadis in a sign of the junior coalition partner’s unease about plans to tighten anti-terror laws.
The Prime Minister will make a Commons statement tomorrow on measures to tackle the danger from Islamic State (IS) extremists, with his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg insisting that the changes will need careful consideration and must be based on evidence.
Mr Cameron has said action is needed to close “gaps in our armoury”, including new legislation to make it easier to take people’s passports away to prevent them from travelling to Iraq and Syria.
The proposals come in response to the raising of the terror threat level in the UK, with experts warning that an attack was “highly likely”.
But Lord Ashdown, writing in The Observer, said politicians should not act as “cheerleaders” for the demands of the intelligence and security services. And he warned that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric risked alienating moderate Muslims.
He said Tory ministers – including Mr Cameron – had used the decision to raise the terror threat level “to tell us how frightened we should be and why this required a range of new powers for them to exercise”.
Lord Ashdown said the threat of terrorism had been faced before “effectively, without panic and without a whole new range of executive powers that could endanger our liberties”.
He said: “Of course, in these circumstances, the police and the security services will lead the clamour for more powers. They are charged by us to maintain our safety.
“It is natural they should want the most powerful weapons to enable them to do so. That’s their job. But it is the job of politicians to act, not as cheerleaders for those demands, but as jealous protectors of our liberties who measure any demand for their reduction against necessity, supported by evidence.”
A Lib Dem source said Mr Clegg and the Prime Minister had been in “constant communication” on the issue and “we will consider very carefully any new proposals that are put to us”.
The Prime Minister has said measures were needed to stop people from travelling in the first place, prevent them from returning if they do go to Syria or Iraq and “deal decisively” with those already in the UK.
New legislation will make it easier to take people’s passports away, and there have been suggestions that the Government could bow to pressure for terrorism prevention and investigation measures (Tpims) to be beefed up.
There have been calls for powers to impose “internal exile” on suspects, a key part of the old control orders regime, to be restored.
The Lib Dem source said: “We wanted to avoid any knee jerk responses and the Prime Minister made very clear that he agrees with that.”
The source said it was clear that “any new proposals would be discussed carefully, based on the evidence and with regard to the liberty of British citizens”.
Lord Ashdown said: “I have no objection to what Nick Clegg has called specific, proportionate responses to strengthen our hand in tackling this threat.
“But these must be evidence based, careful of our liberties and sensitive to the need to keep moderate Islam on our side.”
The peer who insisted that international diplomacy was needed, criticised the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about the struggle against Islamist extremism, claiming it would alienate moderate Muslims.
“He recently told us that this fight was about defending ’Western values’. I cannot think of any phrase, short of those used by George Bush during the Iraq war, which more damages our ability to win this battle.”