Leading article: Scrap the law on human rights and you also scrap the Coalition

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A number of Tory ministers are using the party conference in Manchester to send out signals to their supporters. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has been talking up the joys of working with the Liberal Democrats, a counterintuitive move designed to moderate his image as a narrow man of the right. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is playing a different game. By calling for the Human Rights Act to "go", she is telling those Tories who feel that they have given too much away to their Coalition partners that Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, is not their only champion on the right.

When Ms May says the Act should go, she means Parliament scrapping the law passed in 2000, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights – to which Britain already was party – into UK law. Since then, those who feel their rights have been violated have not needed to go to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg but have been able to take action in British courts.

No one should underestimate Tory hostility to this act. Alongside "Brussels", immigration and law and order, the Human Rights Act has become a red-meat issue about which many Tories feel deeply – and their objections are not all fanciful. Successive home secretaries, Labour and Coalition, have found the Act a real thorn in their sides when they have attempted to deport suspected terrorists – the law having been passed before the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001 and in London in 2005 made that whole question more acute. The Act has also been a gift to publicity-shy celebrities whose lawyers have used it to enforce a broad notion of the right to privacy. The wider question is whether the law's faults outweigh its merits, to which the considered answer must be, no. On the contrary, it has acted as a welcome restraint on the power of the executive and it is no accident that the most respected advocates of human rights passionately defend it.

Politically, different factors come into play when it comes to weighing the Act's merits. The plain fact is that any attempt to scrap it would destroy the Coalition. The Liberal Democrats are a divided party, though arguably no more split today under Nick Clegg than they were under Gladstone. Then, like now, British liberalism pulled in two directions, a Whiggish camp yearning for small government and localism, the other wing aiming to outdo everyone in radicalism. A commitment to human rights is one of the few issues that unites all Liberal Democrats. If they cannot find much common ground on tuition fees or the deficit, they certainly will rally round the Human Rights Act.

Ms May surely knows that, which probably informed her decision to deliver such a telling broadside. She may be looking to a future when the Tories govern alone and wishes to tell the faithful in advance that should that day arrive, they can rely on her as a real Conservative. By throwing down this particular gauntlet, she leaves her party leader, David Cameron, in an uncomfortable position. It is a discussion he could well do without. He cannot afford to distance himself in public from Ms May's position, as he has said the same thing in the past. Nor can he act to do her bidding without pulling down the Government.