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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.