Why MPs are having a tantrum over votes for prisoners

MPs believe they are fighting a defensive action from a position of weakness.

The government is due tomorrow to publish proposed legislation to address the European Court of Human Rights ruling that a blanket ban on prisoner voting is illegal. Parliament will be given the option of lifting the ban, adjusting it so that only those serving short sentences are offered a ballot and upholding the status quo. As soon as they are given the chance, MPs will reaffirm the ban. There are few members of the House of Commons who are keen to advertise themselves, in tabloid terms, as soft on villains.

In reality, it should be easy enough to comply with the ECHR without inviting serial axe-murderers down to their local polling station. The assertion that those who have been denied their liberty for committing some crime must also, as a matter of course and without exception and regardless of the gravity of the offence, lose all of their basic civil rights is pretty extreme. Minor offenders could reasonably be given the vote without society falling into ruin. That isn’t how parliament sees it. It certainly isn’t how the popular press sees it.

Naturally, the argument can be framed as a conflict between liberal and authoritarian tendencies. It can also be seen as a battle of wills between a national institution and a European one (not, in this instance, the European Union; the ECHR is the judicial arm of the Council of Europe, although that nuance will be lost in most of the reporting). A vote to uphold the ban will be presented as a defence of national sovereignty. Immense frustration on the Tory side at the government’s apparent inability to evacuate Abu Qatada from UK soil – also a tussle with the ECHR - will galvanise the defiant mood.

But it would be a mistake to see parliament’s assertive impulses entirely as a reaction against Europe. I have been struck by the extent to which Westminster feels itself more generally belittled and ineffective. That feeling was channelled in the Prime Minister’s intemperate lashing out earlier this week at judicial reviews, equality impact assessments and other legal mechanisms that stop the executive from doing what it wants, when its want. Ministers in this government love a good grumble about interference and obstruction from Whitehall lawyers. When those lawyers cite European regulations as the obstacle, grumbles turn to howls.

MPs, meanwhile, feel assailed by hostile media coverage and digital activism which clogs their Blackberries with frothy outbursts from peevish petitioners. Among the 2010 intake there is an added dimension to the irritation. The newcomers would like to be presumed innocent of any expenses fiddling, given that they were not in parliament when the most famous offences were committed, but find themselves still tarred with the broad brush of anti-politician scorn.

Feeling a bit sorry for politicians is a pretty niche area in Britain at the moment. And it would be perverse for MPs to seek therapy for their feelings of inadequacy and impotence by denying that the prison population has civil rights. It is, however, worth noting that when MPs do vote that way, many of them will be acting in the sincere belief that they are fighting a defensive action from a position of weakness, and not, as it may appear from the outside, asserting their strength.

A prison guard at Pentonville prison stands behind a locked gate. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.