Cameron Cannot Escape a Verdict on Strasbourg

The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Cameron Cannot Escape a Verdict on Strasbourg


'I don't really worry about David and the European Court of Human Rights, ' one right-wing member of the then shadow cabinet told me months before the last election. After a fortifying mouthful of steak, he continued: 'The truth is that, whatever the policy is now, as soon as the court tells him he can't deport some terrorist and the papers start giving it to him in the neck, he'll go absolutely mental and insist on reform.'

The moment has arrived. Abu Qatada - believed to have been the intellectual inspiration for several terrorist groups and, at one point, Osama bin Laden's ambassador in Europe - is to be freed on bail because of a ruling by the court in Strasbourg. The government is trying to appeal against the verdict.

And Cameron is indeed exasperated. He protested to the Council of Europe ahead of Qatada's release that 'the problem today is that you can end up with someone who has no right to live in your country, who you are convinced - and have good reason to be convinced - means to do your country harm.

And yet there are circumstances in which you cannot try them, you cannot detain them and you cannot deport them.'

Britain currently chairs the Council of Europe, the international organisation behind the court, and the Prime Minister has tried to broker an agreement among its 47 members to grant national governments more flexibility in such cases. But almost no one in No. 10 thinks there is much chance of it being achieved before our chairmanship ends in May. Anything that requires 47 countries to agree is, in the words of one Downing Street aide, 'just not going to happen'.

Why, then, is Cameron is pursuing this approach? There are two possible explanations. The first is that it's a way to appease critics of the Strasbourg court in his parliamentary party and the press. Whenever a controversial case comes along, he can present himself as the leader who is trying to change the unfair system. The second, more interesting theory is that the negotiations are a prelude to more radical action, and are designed to mollify those who instinctively favour sticking with Strasbourg - among them the Liberal Democrats, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and, crucially, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. If Cameron wishes to retain the support of this group, he must show that he has exhausted every other option before he tries to seize back the court's powers.

But he will find it almost impossible to keep both sides happy. A growing number of his backbenchers - and of his voters - will only be happy when Britain is free from the Strasbourg court's jurisdiction. By contrast, the court's supporters view Britain's membership of it as an international badge of honour.

If we ever did leave, the letters pages of the Times and the Guardian would be full of the liberals declaring that Britain was now worse than Belarus.

In Whitehall, officials are increasingly confident that they can make the Abu Qatada case go away. They believe they can strike a quick deal with Jordan that makes his extradition acceptable to Strasbourg. All it would take, they believe, is a guarantee from the Jordanians that evidence obtained by torture would not be used in the trial. …

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