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The U-turn over votes-for-prisoners highlights three of the Government's major weaknesses

Tim Montgomerie

6a00d83451b31c69e20147e1b369bf970b-250wi The BBC is reporting that the Coalition is preparing to significantly dilute its plans to give prisoners the right-to-vote. In an announcement in late December, designed to be buried underneath snow and Christmas wrapping paper, when many MPs had already gone into recess, Mark Harper MP told the Commons that the Coalition would respond to a European Court of Human Rights ruling by giving the right-to-vote to all prisoners sentenced to up to four years in jail. As the BBC notes this morning, that would mean "28,000 prisoners, including 6,000 jailed for violent crime, more than 1,700 sex offenders, more than 4,000 burglars and 4,300 imprisoned for drug offences."

It was obvious that the government was heading for defeat. I couldn't find a Tory backbencher willing to support the Government when I wrote about the issue for The Sunday Telegraph. Why couldn't the Government have established this before they dug themselves into such an impossible position? Did Downing Street consult the whips? Did David Cameron's PPS not warn him of the backbench mood? This episode brings together three of the Tory leadership's biggest weaknesses:

  • an unwillingness to assert the independence of the UK against European institutions;
  • policy positions on law and order that are much more liberal than those of the public;
  • very poor communications between Downing Street and backbenchers.

The U-turn occured after David Cameron met the 1922 Committee yesterday. Graham Brady, '22 Chairman and other backbench officers, left the Prime Minister in no doubt that he would be faced by a massive rebellion from Tory MPs, almost certainly leading to defeat. David Davis and Jack Straw had joined together to oppose the plan.

The Government is now proposing that prisoners sentenced to only one year or less will get the vote. Other ECHR signatory nations limit prisoners' voting rights in this way but, unlike the UK, have not been taken to the courts by prisoners. The UK taxpayer still risks paying compensation running into tens of millions of pounds if the courts strike down the one year policy.


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