Unlikely Tory rebel poses threat to Cameron’s credibility on Europe
Sacked attorney general has likened plan about ECHR to Crimean annexation
Former attorney general of England and Wales Dominic Grieve, who said Britain risks “serious international reputational damage” with a proposal to allow MPs a veto over rulings made by the European Court of Human Rights. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA
The fire alarm went off thunderously in the early hours of a morning in Exeter College in Oxford a few years ago, forcing out of bed those who had gathered for a conference.
The disruption prompted grumbles. Cigarettes were shared by smokers, while everyone else simply waited for the all-clear until they could return to sleep.
In the middle of the college’s quad, one man, who had come for only one day, stood calmly, wearing a paisley dressing gown, complete with perfectly matching pyjamas and slippers.
The man was Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general of England and Wales until he was sacked last week by British prime minister David Cameron. Grieve displayed an imperturbable calm in Exeter College, but he is not calm now. In fact, the softly-spoken barrister is incandescent with rage.
His sacking is bad news for those who fear a United Kingdom exit from the European Union, even if the man who holds Benjamin Disraeli’s Commons seat is no Europhile.
Convention on human rights The immediate cause of his downfall was not the EU, but rather the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the 65-year-old
convention that lies at its heart.
The convention is toxic to Conservatives, who blame it as the source of many of the UK’s ills in coping with immigration, terrorism and much else.
Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, who used it for eight years to block his extradition to Jordan, was eventually expelled. So far he has been acquitted on one set of terrorism charges, but remains in jail to face a second round.
Meanwhile, Cameron was infuriated by a ruling in a case taken by a British prisoner, John Hirst, who demanded that he should be able to vote. Initially, the British government sought to comply with the ruling, but MPs rebelled. Now it says prisoners will not get the vote.
The court never said all prisoners should get the vote, but rather that the UK should justify departing from the principle of universal suffrage; but that point has been lost.
A group of Conservative lawyers recently put a paper before justice secretary Chris Grayling to limit the reach of the ECHR in the UK. Grayling, a man of little subtlety and the first non-lawyer to be lord chancellor in 400 years, was delighted, particularly since he had promised something similar a year before.
Incoherent gibberish Guaranteeing his sacking, Grieve, a man of some intellectual weight, with little patience for fools, scathingly dismissed the plans as incoherent gibberish. Extraordinarily,
10 Downing Street – and this tells one much about some of its operations at times – had tried to hide the paper from him, even though he was, as it were, the house lawyer.
Under the plan, the Conservatives will pledge in the 2015 election to block the implementation of ECHR rulings, unless Westminster approves in each case.
“Of all the ideas I have heard about, that strikes me as just about the worst of all. It may appear superficially attractive, but it is effectively driving a coach and horses through international legal obligations, behaving in a way that can only be described as anarchic. It creates massive uncertainty and it risks a legal road crash,” Grieve said.
‘Not dissimilar from Putin’ Witheringly,
he went on: “It’s not dissimilar from Putin using the Duma to ratify his annexation of the Crimea. Putin will say, ‘Well it’s now lawful; the Duma has said so.’”
All of this comes from one who is no dew-eyed Strasbourg fan. Indeed, he believes it often goes too far. Unlike his enemies, however, he just does not believe that solutions are easy.
The core of Grieve’s argument about the ECHR – which is not an EU court, of course, though British Eurosceptics often get confused – is simple. The UK cannot quit – actually, or in effect – a 60-year-old international human rights agreement without suffering catastrophic reputational damage, he believes.
The danger for Cameron is that Grieve – one of many new enemies he made in the recent reshuffle – could damage his credibility in the year ahead with key audiences, if not the public at large.
Grieve is an unlikely rebel but it is clear that he has no intention of staying silent. Few may have heard of him outside of Westminster up to now, but he has a voice now.