For all their rage, the Tories know Qatada is going nowhere fast

The dialogue going on in the party’s brain is also a dialogue with the electorate


David Cameron said a year ago: “I sometimes wish I could put him on a plane and take him to Jordan myself.”

Yesterday, Theresa May patiently explained in the House of Commons why he couldn’t. It was almost as if one part of the Conservative Party’s brain were engaged in an internal dialogue with the other part.

One part wants to take Abu Qatada to Heathrow’s Terminal 3 and sit with him all the way to Amman and dare the lawyers to do their worst. The Prime Minister told The Sun that the case made his “blood boil”. Several Tory MPs said that their constituents simply did not understand why we couldn’t simply sling out someone we don’t want in this country. But the other part of the Tory brain venerates the rule of law. As Kevin Brennan, the sharp Labour MP observed, it has come to something when a Conservative Home Secretary tells the House of Commons that “the Government must operate within the law”.

The law, May did not need to say, includes the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, among them an absolute prohibition on torture.  She went further, and explained why governments have to abide by the law. She said that “as soon as we start ignoring our obligations under international law, we jeopardise our national security”. Other countries would feel that they could ignore their obligations to us. At this point, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who said 18 months ago that there was “no question of the UK withdrawing from the Convention”, was nodding emphatically by her side.

The Government had to obey the law, she repeated – or change the law. At this point, Grieve stopped nodding. May said, more than once, that we had to sort out the workings of the European Convention and that all options should be on the table, including that of the UK’s leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court.

But she knows perfectly well that this has little to do with the present impasse over the Abu Qatada case. Repudiating the European Convention is a big deal, and she knows that she cannot get it through the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, let alone the coalition that is the Tory party. She will have to fight Grieve and Kenneth Clarke just to get it into the Conservative manifesto. Even if she can win that fight, it would be a matter for a new government, a majority Conservative government, after the next election.

She hopes to have got Abu Qatada onto that plane before then. She hopes that her new treaty with Jordan, under which the Jordanians swear even more solemnly than they did last time not to use evidence obtained by torture, will persuade the British courts.

So what was all that yesterday about “suspending” the application of the European Convention in the UK for long enough to get Abu Qatada out of the country? Journalists came away from briefings from No 10 with the impression that this was a serious possibility, but, again, Grieve, Clarke and Nick Clegg wouldn’t countenance it. They think that Britain should adhere to the Convention as a matter of principle. What is more, any lawyer can tell you that the Convention can be suspended only in an emergency, and that the Prime Minister’s blood reaching boiling point does not constitute such a thing.

When May was asked about the possibility of suspending the Convention, the Home Secretary changed the subject to her default cliché of refusing to take things off the table. That is because she wants to appear tough on Abu Qatada and tough on the causes of Abu Qatada, not because there is any prospect of temporarily pulling out of the Convention and then returning to it.

She and Cameron know that the dialogue in the Tory party’s brain is also a dialogue with the electorate. They have to achieve four things at the same time: to be seen to share the frustration of the voters about Abu Qatada; to look as if they are working steadily towards putting him on that plane; to balance the political coalitions in Government; and to do all this while keeping within the law. Sometimes you get a glimpse of just how difficult the apparently simple business of politics can be.

The split in the Tory party’s brain is not a simple ideological quarrel: it is a struggle to reconcile strong feelings of right and wrong with universal precepts of justice. At first glance, we might have thought that if the Jordanian justice system uses evidence obtained by torture, this was a bad thing but of little concern to us. But then, if we really think torture is unacceptable, and the UK has signed up not just to the European Convention but to other treaties that say so, we should not be surprised when our courts interpret them to mean what they say they mean.

My view is that the discomfort of accommodating Abu Qatada – or, for example, of amending the law on prisoners’ votes – is not enough to justify repudiating the Convention. If May, Chris Grayling and Cameron think otherwise, let them put that in the manifesto and see if they are elected with a majority in the Commons that could carry it through. But that is for two years’ time.

Before then, the most important thing is the new treaty with Jordan. The only thing that really matters is whether the Special Immigration Appeals Commission will accept, this time, the assurances not to use evidence obtained by torture. If it does, score another slightly unexpected victory to the slightly unexpected Theresa May. She got Abu Hamza on a plane, kept Gary McKinnon off one and has presided over the fall in crime bequeathed to her by 13 years of enlightened Labour government. But if it doesn’t, she is back to bluster and another clatter of incompetence.

If that happens, the best that she and Cameron can hope for is to have been seen fighting on the side of public opinion. That’s why she wants to keep up the rhetoric of fighting the European Court of Human Rights, even though she knows that it’s a pretend slaying of a shadow dragon.

John Rentoul is Chief Political commentator of ‘The Independent on Sunday’

Twitter: @JohnRentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Personal Finance Editor: Cutting out the middle man could spell disaster for employees and consumers alike

Simon Read
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch  

Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes tell you what to think. Don't let them

Memphis Barker
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week