SENIOR members of the Conservative front-bench cast doubt yesterday on the party’s policy of supporting government plans for national identity cards.
John Redwood, the party’s deregulation spokesman and a key member of Michael Howard’s campaign team for next year’s election, used a newspaper interview to insist ID cards were far less important in fighting crime than boosting police numbers.
David Cameron, the Tory policy chief tipped by some as a future leader, also sent a coded warning that the Conservatives must distinguish themselves from Labour policies by stressing their commitment to "liberty under the rule of law".
Their interventions underlined the risks being taken by Mr Howard in publicly backing the ID card scheme. He fears opposing the scheme would expose him to charges from Labour of being soft on crime and terrorism.
However, his support has made him vulnerable to internal party discord. Last week, he struggled to persuade his party to follow him in a Commons vote on ID cards, which are due to be introduced in 2008.
Mr Cameron, one of many front-benchers who stayed away from the Commons rather than vote with Mr Howard, used a newspaper column to invoke the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, arguing that Conservatives should instinctively oppose "a government that taxes, regulates, bosses and interferes with unending zeal".
In May, he described the arguments for an ID card as "very flimsy" and said the benefits of the proposed scheme were "unclear".
His invoking of Baroness Thatcher’s name yesterday was significant, because it is Thatcherite "small state" Conservatives who are the most vocal opponents of an ID card; the former prime minister is reported to have called the idea "Germanic".
Mr Redwood, who is one of Lady Thatcher’s most devoted followers, was returned to the front-bench by Mr Howard earlier this year to bolster the Conservatives’ credentials as Eurosceptic opponents of big government.
But with his Thatcherite credentials come his opinions and yesterday, he told the Daily Telegraph: "We are not suddenly going to switch our core policy and say the Tory core policy for fighting crime is ID cards - we don’t believe that." He went on to add that "proper policing" was more important.