Well-Timed Terrorism?

The foiled terror plot of August 10th has had considerable effect on the news of the past week. It’s turned the airline industry upside-down in a scramble to prevent such innocuous items as bottled water from finding their way on board a jet, where they would be combined with some ill-defined collection of other liquids in an effort to create an explosive. Admittedly, this threat appears largely illusory, but it makes for very exciting news. Less well publicized is the enormous effect it has had on the British political landscape, and that’s what I hope to examine here.

British Home Secretary John Reid got his political start in the 1970’s as a member of the British Communist Party. Since then he has become one of Tony Blair’s closest allies, and a staunch defender of New Labour. Though his often controversial attacks on his enemies have long kept him in the public limelight (recall on March 18, when then Defence Secretary Reid accused tens of thousands of London antiwar protesters of supporting terrorism), he had never been more than a second-tier player in British politics. This past week, that has changed, and Reid is suddenly now considered a legitimate contender in the race to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister. The frontrunner remains Blair’s longtime rival, Chancellor Gordon Brown, but Reid is now being discussed as a credible rival for him.

To understand why we need to go back to the day before the plot was foiled, August 9th. Reid was delivering a talk to British think tank Demos, a third way advocacy organization very friendly with New Labour which was founded by the former editor of the British Communist Party’s journal “Marxism Today”. Dr. Reid is extremely adept at getting into the headlines, and this talk was no different. In it, he condemned the Court of Appeal’s insistence that terror detentions conform to human rights laws and declared that, in the name of winning the fight against terror, the British would have to modify (read: eliminate) certain long cherished freedoms. This declaration was enough to get him into the headlines of most British news outlets, along with more than a little grumbling from civil libertarians about the threat his policies would pose to personal freedom.

Then, the very next day, a major terror plot is foiled. In light of this “breaking news”, Dr. Reid’s speech seems almost prescient. Almost, at least, until you consider that he knew about the upcoming foiling well in advance of the speech. How do we know this? That requires us to look at the American response. On the day of the arrests, CNBC was reporting that Bush’s apparently impromptu speech on the topic was in fact written the day before. When asked about when they were informed about it, Tony Snow was evasive, as usual, but he did confirm that the White House had known about it for some time, as it was a topic of discussion during their Sunday briefing (August 6). Ultimately, since the British had informed the White House that they were scheduling the plot foiling three days before Dr. Reid’s speech to Demos, it is reasonable to assume that his speech was written with an eye towards the events of the following day.

Also interesting is the way he’s sort of “spontaneously” taken over the response to the incident in Tony Blair’s absence, much to the chagrin of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who Blair had initially left in charge before going on vacation. The view of Dr. Reid as the sort of person who doesn’t lose his head and can take charge in a crisis has dramatically increased his popularity, but when one considers that this “crisis” had several days of lead time to it, it is doubtful that it was all that spontaneous.

But the underlying question, and it’s one that we unfortunately can’t answer at this time, is exactly when the British government scheduled this canned “crisis”. Since they’d told the Americans at least as early as August 6, that’s the latest they knew about it. But Tony Blair went on his scheduled vacation on August 4, only two days earlier, leaving Prescott in charge. If he knew about the upcoming arrests before he left, a response that already appears to be a planned PR move may well have been a carefully orchestrated King-making event designed for the specific reason of making Blair’s ally John Reid a legitimate candidate to succeed him as Prime Minister. If any real threat existed, surely Tony Blair would not have abandoned his country and gone on vacation.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s relative inexperience and tendency towards public speaking gaffes rule him out as a reasonable candidate for Prime Minister when Blair steps down. John Reid, on the other hand, had the experience and the name-awareness to be the “Stop Brown” candidate that the Blairites have so desperately sought since their respective controversies ruined the chances of both David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, the previous two Home Secretaries. All he really needed was a crisis to handle to endear himself to the public, and he appears to have gotten that. A question that the British public ought to be asking is, how real was this crisis, and how well planned was his handling of it?