“The government are saying…you don’t know best – we do”. Such was the denouement of Theresa May’s maiden speech in 1997, condemning the new Blair government on its education reforms. Sadly Blair’s instincts seem to have rubbed off on her. At this week’s Conservative Party conference, May endorsed Cameron’s plans to take back power from ‘unaccountable judges’ under the Human Rights Act and ‘bring them back’. To politicians? “You don’t know best”: May’s words to judges today.
It’s hard to think of such a contradiction for the Tories as the Human Rights Act, which took powers back from Europe (by bringing the European Convention on Human Rights into British law – and our courts). Strangely, you won’t see Eurosceptics mourning the apparent death of the HRA on Newsnight, despite Brits no longer having to go to Strasbourg to sort their problems out.
Cameron had a lot to say about liberty and rights upon becoming Tory leader – ‘compassionate Conservatism’ (borrowed from that arch-executioner George Bush) aimed to fix the ‘flog em all’ reputation of the Tories. Appointing the liberal Kenneth Clarke as chair of a new Tory ‘democracy group’, Cameron even stole some of the Lib Dems pink flair while they were still battling over who would lead their own party.
By the time the 2010 election arrived however, Cameron promised to replace the HRA with a Bill of Rights (which Clarke described as ‘zenophobic’). The dispute in the coalition over the HRA mirrors the manifesto divide – the Lib Dems pledged to ‘protect the Human Rights Act’. Then again, they also pledged to scrap tuition fees. Where this leaves the coalition now though is uncertain. The coalition agreement is ambiguous, seeking to establish a commission to ‘build on our obligations under the ECHR’.
May, who voted against New Labour’s rights-infringing counter-terrorism legislation, described herself to the Tory conference as one ‘in the minority who want [the HRA] to go’. Let’s hope the hypocrite remains in a minority. But other senior figures in the party also want the act scrapped. Will the Lib Dems fight for it, or perform another cowardly u-turn? After the tuition fee debacle however, it’s unlikely the party faithful would forgive another. Cameron’s future is stable. But Clegg’s future as leader could stand on this. The question ‘stay or may be about more than just the Human Rights Act a few weeks down the line.