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’