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A plea to Downing Street over the ECHR. Please put up or shut up.

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-04-24 at 07.43.18A colleague of the Prime Minister's once said to me that the Prime Minister would never cooly plan Britain's exit from the European Convention of Human Rights, but would lose his temper with the court after a more than usually patience-snapping judgement - and pull us out.  Readers will remember that he told the Commons that the prospect of votes for prisoners made him "sick in the stomach".  The Sun reports today that Cameron told Ministers yesterday that Abu Qatada's continued presence in Britain makes his "blood boil". The ECHR is plainly bad for David Cameron's health. The paper also reports that the Prime Minister "is considering a temporary withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights so judges in Strasbourg can’t block Qatada’s expulsion".

An impulsive withdrawal over one case, however egregious, is perhaps not the surest or steadiest means of quitting the ECHR.  But those of us who support such a course of action shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth - were, that is, the animal really on offer.  For were Cameron to try to lead Britain out of the ECHR, Nick Clegg would block the move in the quad, or elsewhere.  (Remember how he mocked Theresa May's aspirations on this matter at the Liberal Democrat spring conference.) He would doubtless be assisted by Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve, neither of whom believe Britain should leave: indeed, the Attorney General has warned that Britain would become a "pariah state", like Belarus.  "There is no government policy on withdrawing from the Convention on Human Rights," he said last October.

In simple terms, the ECHR choice is clear.  Ministers should either say that we will leave, and take Britain out.  Or, if coalition (plus an unwillingness to lose at least two senior Ministers) makes this impossible, they should keep quiet.  Drawing up policy for the next Conservative manifesto is a different matter.  Chris Grayling has charge of doing so, may conclude that we should quit, and is presumably mulling over the content and the timing.  Any potency that it may have risks being devalued if Ministers, let alone Number Ten, drop hints that Britain may walk out...and then nothing happens.  The only person likely to gain from it is Nigel Farage.  In opposition, Cameron used to taunt Gordon Brown for "treating people like fools".  So how would he describe marching voters up to the top of hill over the ECHR, only promptly to march them down again?


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