For an MP, let alone one with high-calibre experience as a government and business lawyer, Dominic Raab, first leafing busily through his papers, then shifting his position on the bench, seemed weirdly fidgety and nervous. So much so, you wondered if you should call the cops, who after all keep exhorting us: “If you see someone acting suspiciously. Don’t hesitate. Call 999.”
This was odd, since he was so obviously the man of the moment. But then maybe that was just it: that he knew his rebel Immigration Bill amendment would detonate the kind of medium-sized parliamentary explosion that must have left a shell-shocked Tory high command – if that’s still a meaningful term – wondering how it ever got into this rather peculiar mess.
Once on his feet, Raab, who knows his stuff having been a Foreign Office high flyer, and who is the son of a Czech-Jewish refugee who came to Britain in 1938, was confidence itself.
He was eloquent in making the case for the Home Secretary to have unfettered power to deport miscreants irrespective of their family ties. Among several cases, he cited that of “a man jailed twice for raping his partner [who] relied on his relationship with the same woman to avoid deportation successfully”.
He was praised by fellow MPs – including no less a Labour figure than Jack Straw, who said he was not a “foaming at the mouth” kind of Tory dissident. And anyone who summons up a revolt of this size – even in the current ultra-rebellious Tory party – is going to be treated with some respect in future.
But Theresa May was pretty robust in criticising the Raab approach, which in some respects “weaken our ability to deport foreign criminals”. She had clear legal advice that it was incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights. This doesn’t worry the more “foaming in the mouth” of Raab’s supporters, of course – but she pointed out this would mean it would actually delay deportations because of “considerable legal wrangling”.
Yet in the end (most of) the Opposition and the Lib Dems voted in accordance with what Ms May had said (making nice to each other in the process) – while she herself, along with the Prime Minister and their loyalists, did not. The rebellion was defeated, but not by them. The former Tory leader Lord (Michael) Howard, no softie on these issues, had criticised the Raab amendment and sensibly pointed out that, with 15 months until polling day, “it’s very important that we present the Conservative Party as a united party in the run-up to the election”.
It sounded like a distant echo from another age.