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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.