David Cameron has made a pitch to the Tory right after he raised the prospect of temporary withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights in an attempt to deport the extremist preacher Abu Qatada from Britain.
The threat – echoed in the Commons by the Home Secretary, Theresa May – provoked a backlash from the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the Tory minister Kenneth Clarke.
There is no realistic prospect of withdrawal while the Coalition is in office because of fierce Liberal Democrat resistance to the idea, but the Conservative move appeared aimed at reassuring party loyalists ahead of next Thursday’s local election contests.
The possibility of pulling out of the convention was discussed by Mr Cameron, Mrs May, the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and the Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, Downing Street confirmed. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We are going to explore every option.”
In a statement to MPs, Mrs May said: “We should have all options, including leaving the convention altogether, on the table. The Prime Minister is looking at all the options. That is the only sensible thing to do.”
The Home Secretary announced the British and Jordanian governments had signed a new treaty guaranteeing Abu Qatada would not face trial in Jordan on evidence obtained by torture. She said the step would “finally make possible” the cleric’s removal, although she made clear it could still take months to remove him from Britain.
The preacher, once described as Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, has been fighting a legal battle against his deportation for almost a decade.
Conservative ministers have attacked judges at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which interprets the convention, for thwarting attempts to expel him. Labour has blamed Home Office mistakes and misjudgements for the impasse.
A Liberal Democrat source said: “We support the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. No proposal has been put to us. We are not withdrawing from the convention.”
Mr Clarke, a minister without portfolio, who has previously clashed with Mrs May over human rights, said the Government had no plans to withdraw from the court’s jurisdiction. He told BBC Radio 4: “I’m not aware that we are actively looking at that.”
Benjamin Ward of Human Rights Watch said: “It’s extraordinary that the Home Secretary is contemplating leaving a major human rights treaty that Britain helped create just to make it easy to deport an undesirable person. If the Government is serious about upholding the rule of law, it should gather the evidence to prosecute Abu Qatada here in Britain, where he can get a fair trial.”
The Government suffered a fresh blow this week to its efforts to expel Abu Qatada when the Court of Appeal refused permission for the Home Secretary to take the fight to the Supreme Court. Mrs May said the Home Office would now appeal directly to the Supreme Court for permission to appeal. In the meantime, she has signed a “legal assistance agreement” with Jordan, in order to launch a fresh deportation bid.
How would temporary withdrawal work?
Article 15 of the Convention allows countries to pull out in time of “war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation” as long as the move is “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”.
Would temporary withdrawal guarantee Qatada’s deportation?
This is far from clear. British courts could block the preacher’s removal on the grounds it fell foul of the United Nations convention against torture. The European Convention also makes clear that withdrawal is not allowed if it leads to people suffering torture.
Has the step happened before?
Edward Heath’s government used it during internment in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, while Tony Blair considered and rejected the idea after the September 11 attacks to deport suspected terrorists.
What could happen if the UK simply ignored the Court?
It could order Britain to bring Qatada back from Jordan and pay him compensation. It could also mean other countries not observing their obligations to Britain under international law.
How serious is the prospect of the Tories suggesting permanent withdrawal?
Very serious. It is now emerging as potential commitment in the party’s next general election manifesto.