The European Court of Human Rights. Photo: Mathieu Nivelles/Flickr
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David Cameron versus the human rights court: a populist hit

The Tories are preparing to take on the European Court of Human Rights, in what could be their most significant populist hit before the next election.

It began with cabinet departures. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve and veteran Conservative frontbencher Ken Clarke left the government during this week’s reshuffle. It has been described as the cull of the Tory left – but more specifically with these exits, the PM has evicted two influential, weighty figures at the cabinet table who supported Britain’s EU membership, and it being signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Now he’s rid of the euro-moderates, David Cameron seems to have cleared his way to all-out war on a European institution to which Britain is signed up aside from the EU: the European Convention on Human Rights. The BBC is reporting this morning that his party is drawing up plans for a new law designed to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights and to make parliament the ultimate legal arbiter over human rights matters.

Clarke and Grieve were sceptical about tampering with Britain’s relationship with the human rights court. Clarke called Theresa May’s conference speech in 2011 – in which she claimed a Bolivian man was allowed to stay in the UK because of his cat ­– “laughable and child-like”. He said yesterday on the Today programme that it was “unthinkable” for us to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, labelling it the “bedrock” of the rule of law, individual liberty and justice for all. Grieve also was dubious about Cameron’s plans, reportedly (from the BBC’s Nick Robinson this morning) warning his colleagues that the plan, and its alternative – a British Bill of Rights – would be a “legal car-crash”, albeit one “with a built-in time delay”.

But senior ministers who have retained their positions, such as Home Secretary Theresa May and the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, have long been critical of the human rights court, battling with the court on a number of cases including prisoners’ right to vote, deporting terrorist suspects, and deporting foreign criminals and racists. The right to a family life, ruled by the judges in Strasbourg, is often the stumbling block for such cases.

A group of Conservative lawyers recently presented the PM with proposals for new legislation that would assert parliament’s power over the power of the human rights court’s judges. Their plan is not to leave altogether, but to be able to disregard the court’s rulings. A sort of cherry-picking that Grieve, while he was still in his job, warned would create a “degree of anarchy”.

It’s clear why this is an attractive plan for Cameron. As the Guardian points out, it will allow him to hit immigration, crime and the tyranny of Europe all in one go – and if he can deploy more individual stories, like May’s cat anecdote (although it was inaccurate), he can use his plan to capture the imagination of an electorate already primed with horror stories about immigration.

However, though it may be a populist policy, it could ultimately do little for parliament’s so-called “sovereignty”. I interviewed the criminal lawyer Michael Mansfield QC last summer, and he pointed out that recent high-profile cases, such as that of attempting to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada, would be just as difficult without the European Convention.

He told me:

English Common Law, on which the Convention was based, actually itself embraces the same rights. For example, there would have been the same difficulty with Abu Qatada without the European Convention; it has everything to do with English law itself saying to the government ‘we are not happy that any process has the risk of being tainted by tortured evidence’. It’s an English principle. We’re not dealing here with trivial rights, we’re dealing with fundamental situations. Is there an English right to life that is different to everybody else’s?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.