Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Cameron: More Don Quixote than Prime Minister

An interesting question yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions from a former Home Secretary:

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): It is fundamental, is it not, that the holder of the office of Attorney-General should be fiercely independent, defend the rule of law and be ready to speak legal truth to power. Given the distinction and respect with which the holder of that office pursued that role, what possessed the Prime Minister to dismiss him yesterday?

The Prime Minister: I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is vitally important that the Attorney-General gives unvarnished, independent advice, and is the Government’s legal adviser. But I also believe that, in government, when someone has served extremely well for four years, there are often times when it is right to bring on new talent and to make the most of all the talent in one’s party. That is the approach that I take as Prime Minister, and I explain that very clearly to my team.
Hansard 16 July 2014 : Column 857/8

Such a question – and the “dodged answer” telegraphs an issue – but what issue?

Cameron is back on his old nag “Rocinante” taking aim at another European windmill. As Nick Robinson comments:

In recent weeks the prime minister was presented with a plan by a group of Conservative lawyers. It proposes a new law which would assert that Parliament and not the European Court of Human Rights was the supreme body.

Their report predicts that a so-called British Bill of Rights would either force changes in the way the Strasbourg court works or trigger a crisis which could lead to the UK’s expulsion from the international body which set up the court and which Britain helped to found – the Council of Europe.
BBC Website; Nick Robinson’s Commentary: Cameron sets his sights on human rights court

And what was the (former) Attorney General’s opinion of such a move?

… he warned his colleagues that it was a plan for “a legal car crash” albeit one with “a built-in time delay”.

He argued that promising to stay in the European Convention of Human Rights whilst refusing to recognise the court’s rulings was “incoherent”.
BBC ibid

Previously Dominic Grieve had said to a parliamentary committee:

It seems to me that one has to think very carefully about what the consequences are in deciding that you can cherry-pick the obligations that you are going to accept.

Whilst it may be perfectly possible to disregard them you are creating a degree of anarchy in the international order that you are trying to promote.
BBC ibid

As Nick Robinson commented:

Put rather more crudely than Grieve might wish, he was warning that if Britain meddled with human rights laws there’d be nothing to stop President Putin and other less scrupulous figures doing the same.
BBC ibid

This is revealing in what it says about Cameron. He’s out “on European Manoeuvres” again. Some claim that actually he is pro Europe. He certainly says that he will successfully renegotiate and then campaign in the referendum for continued membership of the (reformed) EU. But then he insists on picking stupid fights with European institutions – his judgement being a knee jerk reaction. Two instances:

Prisoners’ voting rights. The Government has created a crisis out of a minor administrative inconvenience. The European court of human rights (ECHR) decision (in 2005) was that a blanket ban on prisoners being allowed to participate in elections was illegal. Instead of accepting that the scope of any ban should be decided by Parliament (which would have brought us into compliance), Cameron then escalated this into a major “point of principle”. Do we really believe that someone sent to prison for a week for non-payment of a fine should be deprived of his right to vote in the same way as someone on an indeterminate sentence (effectively becoming a modern-day outcast)? Apparently the idea that a man who could be locked up on the Monday of election week, but released before the result of the election is known, should have a say in choosing the government of this country makes our Prime Minister “sick in the stomach”. He obviously has a very weak stomach.

Jean-Claude Juncker. Going down to a 26 to 2 defeat over the choice of the President of the European Commission seems to be pointless politics. He gains nothing but shows he is ineffective in Europe. The European Peoples Party (EPP), although it did not win an absolute majority in the last European Parliamentary Election was the largest party and Juncker was their nominee. I am sure that Cameron with his liking for the largest minority getting a Westminster majority and the right to nominate the Prime Minister can see that his position is illogical and can therefore only be posturing. (He did chose to take the Conservatives out of the EPP, thereby depriving them of a say in the nomination of the most likely candidate to become Commission President.)

So now he has cleared out:

  • The Attorney general who gave him “inconvenient” advice
  • Ken Clarke, possibly the only true Europhile that remained in the Cabinet
  • William Hague, who according to Nick Robinson was another voice who raised doubts about the plan for confronting the Strasbourg court in recent weeks.

He has appointed as Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond who is:

… an arch-Eurosceptic who has said he could support Britain pulling out of the 28-member bloc.

His promotion will delight Tory right-wingers who had accused William Hague of “going native” during his four years of dealings with the European Union. …

Last year he burnished his Eurosceptic credentials by saying he would vote for a British exit if a referendum was held tomorrow.* But he stressed that David Cameron should first be given the opportunity to try to wrest powers back from Brussels.
The Independent 15 July 2014 : Cabinet reshuffle: Philip Hammond’s promotion to Foreign Secretary will delight Tory right-wingers

Now he may just be in the post as a bit of pre-election “window dressing” and its possible (as the Independent concedes) that after the election he and Osborne may swap jobs. But when you indulge in window dressing you have to consider the effect you have, not just on those you wish to attract in the short-term, but also on those you wish to work with in the long-term.

The chance of an effective renegotiation is becoming vanishingly slim. Cameron has pissed off the new President of the Commission, he has fallen out with his natural ally (Merkel) and joined a rival political group, and he has shown himself to be in a minority with only Hungary supporting him. I suspect that he is about to have another row about the appointment of European Commissioners – claiming the right to a major Economic post when as a country we are outside the major EU economic project.

We are continuing down the track toward EU exit led not by our Prime Minister but by that Pied Piper, Nigel Farage. The Prime Minister has become a placid sheep-like follower bleating ineffectively.


* [Edit 21 July 2014] The Guardian reports:

Philip Hammond, last week appointed as foreign secretary, has confirmed that he would vote for Britain to leave the European Union unless there was significant reform in Brussels.

In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, Hammond said that current arrangements were “simply not acceptable” and that he stood by the answer he gave in an interview a year ago when he said, if he had to choose now, he would vote for withdrawal from the EU.
The Guardian 20 July 2014 : Philip Hammond: I would still vote to leave Europe

We might find them holding the door open for us rather than have a loaded gun held to their heads.

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