David Cameron once memorably declared that the thought of giving prisoners the vote made him “physically ill” but, as he later conceded, the government will have to “sort this out one way or the other”. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled as long ago as 2004 that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting was illegal and repeated appeals against its decision have failed.
With just a month left until the deadline for the government to respond, today’s Guardian reports that ministers are planning a draft bill to introduce limited prisoner voting rights in order to comply with the court’s ruling. An announcement will reportedly be made after the police commissioner elections on 15 November. Conservative MPs, unsurprisingly, have reacted with fury to the news. Within hours of the Guardian story being published, Nick de Bois, Douglas Carswell, Stewart Jackson, Zac Goldsmith and others took to Twitter to reaffirm their opposition to the move. De Bois tweeted: “Sitting working with 5 other Cons MPs – if reports of prisoner voting rights are accurate then that’s 6 MPs who won’t vote for it”. In February 2011, of course, no fewer than 234 MPs voted to keep the ban on prisoners voting, with just 22 opposed.
The government has responded this morning by categorically denying that it is planning to bring forward a bill, with one cabinet source telling the BBC: “It is completely untrue. It’s not happening. Its complete nonsesnse.” The Prime Minister, we are told, continues to believe that “when people go to prison, they lose their right to vote”. But this doesn’t alter the fact that the government will have to respond in some form to the ECHR ruling by late-November. So, how could it do so? Tory MP Dominic Raab has previously argued that ministers could simply ignore the ruling, with little prospect of the UK being fined by the European Court or ordered to withdraw from it. But the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, is known believe that, after the failure of successive appeals, the government has no choice but to comply with Strasbourg’s demands. Expect Tory MPs to challenge Cameron to make it clear where he stands when PMQs begins later today.