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Friday, December 16, 2005 

Blair considers lifting ban on tapping MPs' phones.

Is there really no depth to which this government will not sink?

Tony Blair yesterday indicated that he may scrap or change a longstanding ban on tapping of MPs' phones brought in by his Labour predecessor at No 10 Harold Wilson.

MPs were given a government guarantee that their phones would not be tapped by police or the security services, "whatsoever the circumstances", by Wilson in the late 1960s.

Prime ministers including Mr Blair have regularly confirmed to parliament that the rule remains in place. Although the ban, known as the Wilson doctrine, does not carry statutory backing, MPs must be told by the prime minister if it is to be changed.

Yesterday Downing Street appeared to take steps towards that in a written statement to MPs. In it, the prime minister said he had received advice about the implications for the ban of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, passed by parliament amid much controversy in 2000.

The statement said the new advice had come from Sir Swinton Thomas, the interception of communications commissioner, and that Mr Blair was considering "possible implications".

Last night a Downing Street official confirmed a decision on whether the Wilson doctrine would be changed was expected in the new year but refused to reveal details of Sir Swinton's advice.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, yesterday called for the protection that MPs currently enjoy to remain in place. He has repeatedly called on the government to reveal whether any MPs have had their phones tapped.

In 2003 it was suggested in parliament that the phones of at least one Sinn Féin MP had been bugged.

After making the guarantee, Wilson became convinced in his second spell as prime minister that he was himself being monitored by the security services.
Is this really about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act or is it about Blair's continued seeming loss of reality? Who is to say that Blair wouldn't like to have his opponents in parliament bugged? With the Campaign group of MPs' raising hell, and even former loyal ministers supporting the alternative education paper published this week which Blair arrogantly dismissed out of hand, he may well be feeling hemmed in from all sides, with a seemingly resurgent Tory party led by Cameron. Maybe I'm just clutching at straws and that such a ban would only be used against the Sinn Fein MPs who don't even sit in the house.

One thing though is certain. Blair is striving for a legacy, and the only thing that the public at the moment will remember him for is Iraq. That is why he seems so determined to push ahead with the education reforms that he and Lord Adonis had as much a hand in as Ruth Kelly. He doesn't realise that if he tries to push through the white paper, not only will Labour desert him, but he will be sealing his own fate.

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