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Leading article: Mr Cameron must act the statesman in Strasbourg


It is not difficult to see why David Cameron might feel insecure about his party's right wing. The suspicions of hardliners about his brand of soft Conservatism have only grown since the general election, their disquiet fuelled by everything from immigration to gay marriage. That was before the Prime Minister used Britain's veto in Brussels, of course – a decision which undermined Britain's influence with our EU partners, but sent his stock soaring within the party. Now Mr Cameron is threatening another Europhobic move of equally staggering short-sightedness.

While arguably unnecessary, there is no reason the Prime Minister should not use his speech to the 47 nation Council of Europe in Strasbourg tomorrow to set out proposals for reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which the Council oversees. But the leaked suggestion that he may withdraw Britain from the ECHR altogether if his demands are not met is alarming. Threats are a wholly unconstructive approach to policy-making and, if carried out, would only add to Britain's growing isolation.

The trouble is that, much like using a veto in the EU, flaying the –unrelated– Strasbourg court offers the PM an opportunity to curry favour with his party and distract from trickier domestic issues. Never mind that no less a Conservative than Winston Churchill played a central role in creating the European Convention on Human Rights which the Strasbourg court enforces. Never mind the long list of civilising judgments on issues as diverse as hearsay evidence or the corporal punishment of minors. Never mind that the ECHR was crucial in establishing the rule of law in former Communist states. Such considerations do not count for much against Tory critics' claims that the court "meddles" in member countries' legal autonomy and is unduly tilted in favour of the rights of criminals and illegal immigrants. With Britain currently in the chair of the Council of Europe, Mr Cameron can present himself as a man of action making the most of a once-in-25 years opportunity.

There is, undeniably, scope for reform in the court. A backlog of more than 150,000 cases for example now exists. But reforms are already under way, and they are surely better developed with due consideration than forced through with menaces. It is also worth noting – as Sir Nicolas Bratza, the ECHR president, points out in this newspaper today – that Britain has lost only eight out of 955 applications to the court in the past 12 months, a proportion that hardly constitutes egregious meddling. To the avowedly anti, however, such details matter little. Last week's decision that the radical cleric Abu Qatada cannot be deported to Jordan is a case in point. The ruling was held up by many Tories as incontrovertible proof that the court goes against common sense. But the reality is more complex, as the parallel complaints of human rights groups that the decision was "one step forward, two steps back" suggest.

Once again, instead of acting the statesman, the Prime Minister is playing to the narrowest of galleries, putting internal party concerns ahead of the national interest. The value of the ECHR cannot be overstated. It sets the standard of legal protection, not just in Europe but across the world. Indeed, it is the upholder of precisely those democratic freedoms which Mr Cameron was willing to support at the point of a sword in Libya. That "human rights" is increasingly used as a derogatory term among traditionalist Tories is offensive. Rather than pandering to it, the Prime Minister should lead from the front.

Sir Nicolas rightly laments the spectacle of senior UK politicians "lending their voices to criticisms more frequently heard in the popular press". We would go even further. Mr Cameron should be ashamed of himself.

* Europe's top judge: Cameron is wrong about human rights
* Nicolas Bratza: Britain should be defending European justice, not attacking it
* Leading article: Mr Cameron must act the statesman in Strasbourg