Cameron faces first Commons defeat

David Davis and Jack Straw manage to secure a debate on giving prisoners the vote.

David Cameron is staring down the barrel of his first Commons defeat as Prime Minister after Jack Straw and David Davis managed to secure a Commons debate on whether or not to give prisoners the vote.

With – according to Paul Waugh at PoliticsHome – just two Conservative MPs supporting votes for prisoners, Cameron is not in a strong position. The parliamentary arithmetic suggests the coalition will lose any vote on the topic.

The issue stems from a decision in the European Court of Human Rights, which argued that the UK had a "legal obligation" to let some prisoners vote. To avoid a potentially huge number of legal challenges from British prisoners, Cameron decided not to contest the decision and to allow prisoners serving sentences of less than four years the vote, despite confessing that the idea made him feel "physically ill".

It's a decision that has not gone down well with the right of the party. Davis used the discord over the issue among Conservatives to his advantage. He said that the thought of rapists being given the right to vote made him "physically sick".

"I yield to no one in my commitment to real human rights, but it is not an expression of human rights to give rapists and violent criminals the right to vote," said the former shadow home secretary.

Davis tickled the ears of his Conservative colleagues even further when he framed the debate as matter of parliament versus Europe.

"This is clearly a matter for parliament and not the European Court of Human Rights," Davis said. "It's for parliament to stand up and say, 'No, this is our decision, not yours,' and then for the government to go back and seek a solution."

Straw went down this route too, arguing that if he were still justice secretary, he "would actually welcome this debate because it would strengthen my hand for dealing with Strasbourg".

"One of the main arguments of the Strasbourg court is that there has not been a substantive debate on the policy. What we are saying is let's have an early debate on the policy now," continued Straw.

Since losing the Conservative leadership election in 2005, Davis has rarely passed on the opportunity of making life difficult for Cameron. In somewhat bizarre circumstances, Davis resigned as an MP in 2008 in an attempt to trigger a wider debate on civil liberties – apparently his position as shadow home secretary did not allow this, whereas standing in an virtually uncontested by-election would have.

This time, however, Davis seems to have got it right. While discord in the Lib Dems was very much a theme of 2010, an increasingly annoyed right wing of the Conservative Party – fed up with perceived concessions to the Lib Dems – might be the dominant issue for the coalition in 2011.

Ironically, it was the coalition's creation of the backbench business committee that has created this impasse. Without it, Straw and Davis would not have been able to orchestrate a debate on the issue. The coalition might yet be bloodied by one of its own policies.

 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.