Cameron goes to the crease with a bat broken by his own party

The real division in the Tory ranks is between those who know how impractical confrontation in Bruss

As is customary before European summit meetings, political leaders from the European People's Party group in the European parliament met yesterday. This, remember, is the collective from which David Cameron withdrew the Tories in 2009, honouring a pledge he had made in order to win eurosceptic backing for his leadership bid in 2005. It seemed like a small price to pay then. Awkwardly, it now means the British prime minister is absent from an occasion that will include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Herman van Rompuy, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and a brace of other EU leaders.

I've written before about how the decision to pull out of the EPP has caused more trouble for Cameron than he anticipated. What is interesting now is how little credit the Tory leader gets for it among the very MPs it was meant to appease. The eurosceptics bank concessions and then move on to demand more.

The same is true of the European Union Act that was pushed through parliament earlier this year, supposedly putting a "referendum lock" on any future EU deals that might involve a transfer of sovereignty to Brussels. This was meant to be compensation to the Tory party for Cameron's reneging on a pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He was terribly sorry that the treaty had been ratified, but could not unpick it and would make sure no such treaty was ever passed again.

Of course, when he formulated that position he didn't anticipate a round of treaty negotiations this parliament. Everyone thought that Lisbon marked the end of institutional reform for a generation. The Act was carefully worded so that ministers get to say what constitutes a transfer of sovereignty and so retain substantial control over whether or not there should be a referendum. Backbench sceptics weren't terribly impressed by that and, not surprisingly, many seem prepared to ignore the letter of the new law. Their view, apparently shared by Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson, is that anything that emerges from the current summit is likely to amount to a new constitutional settlement between the UK and Brussels and so will eventually have to be put to the country in a referendum.

But the idea of Cameron asking the eurozone countries to put their rescue plans on hold while he holds a plebiscite is, frankly, absurd. In theory, Cameron could sign a treaty and ask parliament to ratify it and secure rebel Tory votes with a promise of a referendum later, but it would have to be an in/out vote.

The essential problem is that the sceptics want action that will signal clear and prompt disengagement from the EU, and any action of that kind ends up harming the UK's diplomatic position and negotiating clout. It is easy to promise "repatriation" and even a referendum in opposition, but in government the sheer impracticality becomes clear. Even some very eurosceptic Tories, such as William Hague, have found that ministerial office dulls their appetite for confrontation. They need to get things done with their counterparts in other countries. The hardline sceptics see this as going native or being "captured" by Brussels.

As I wrote in my column this week, frothy Tory euroscepticism makes it ever harder for ministers to build the kinds of alliances they need to promote UK interests in Europe. Countries that might support the British position - sceptical of institutional centralisation, seeking liberalising reform of the single market - need reassurance that we are serious about making the whole project work and not hovering by the exit or, worse, trying to sabotage the whole thing.

The painful reality that David Cameron must confront is that a number of his MPs are pursuing a strategy that pays no heed to the practical demands of running a government in the midst of a serious international economic crisis. To borrow Geoffrey Howe's famous metaphor, the UK prime minister is going out to the Brussels crease with a bat broken by his own backbenchers.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Is this the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland’s abortion ban?

A High Court ruling has found it to be “incompatible with human rights law”.

A High Court judge has today ruled that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion constitutes a breach of human rights. Belfast High Court Judge Justice Horner has said that the province cannot justify its continued ban, which refuses terminations in all circumstances unless a woman’s life is in danger, proclaiming it “incompatible with human rights law”.

The Court has recommended that exemptions to the ban be allowed for women who have conceived as a result of rape or incest, as well as women carrying foetuses with such severe abnormalities or disabilities that they will not survive outside the womb.

As it stands, the most recent legislation on abortion relating to the province is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, passed under Queen Victoria. Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland was exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act which legalised terminations for women in England, Scotland and Wales. 

At least 1,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK to have abortions every year. The judge ruled that it was inconsistent for Northern Irish women to be denied abortions locally but for the law to permit the same women to travel to access services. He said: “If it is morally wrong to abort a foetus in Northern Ireland, it is just as wrong morally to abort the same foetus in England. It does not protect morals to export the problem to another jurisdiction and then turn a blind eye.”

Rather, Justice Horner said that forcing women to go abroad caused women to suffer undue emotional distress and financial hardship, without in any way reducing the number of pregnancies or abortions undertaken by local women: “There is no evidence before this Court, and the Court has in no way attempted to restrict the evidence adduced by any party, that the law in Northern Ireland has resulted in any reduction in the number of abortions obtained by Northern Irish women. Undoubtedly, it will have placed these women who had to have their abortions in England under greater stress, both financial and emotional, by forcing them to have the termination carried out away from home.” 

He noted that travelling abroad was only realistically an option for wealthy women as the entire process can cost up to £2,000, whilst the poorest women were forced to continue pregnancies: “That smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.”

Finally regarding victims of sexual crimes such as rape and incest, the judge ruled: “She [a victim] has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both... The law makes no attempt to balance the rights of the women that are involved.” 

The pronouncement has shocked many in Northern Ireland, where religious communities remain strong. Undoubtedly there will be backlash amongst churches and anti-abortion campaign groups. Attorney General John Larkin is outspoken in his opposition to abortion and has previously described the procedure as akin to shooting a baby. Speaking this morning in response to the ruling, he said he was “profoundly disappointed” and is considering appealing the decision. 

A spokesperson for Amnesty International, who have backed the court case, said that the campaign group are awaiting clarification as to whether new legislation would need to be passed by Stormont to incorporate today’s ruling, or if the ruling alone will be enough to legalise terminations for rape victims, incest victims and severe disability. Stormont remains vehemently opposed to abortion on demand, with Sinn Fein stating that abortion in some circumstances is acceptable. If today’s High Court ruling alone is not enough to affect local laws, it is highly unlikely that Stormont will act on the decision. 

Yet, the High Court’s clear message today cannot be ignored. When Stormont most likely refuses to enact it over the coming months, then the House of Commons might find themselves with an ethical obligation to intervene. Westminster has long refused to get involved in the debate, citing the principle of devolution that Northern Ireland gets to have the ultimate say over its own laws. However, as of today, human rights abuses are officially being committed against British citizens through the Northern Irish abortion ban, which would make for a legally compelling case for Westminster intervention.