Tories playing long game over Human Rights Act

By Alex Stevenson

Sometimes the government likes to cover up its internal divisions. But the party conference season has only served to fan the flames of their spat over the future of the Human Rights Act.

After Nick Clegg said "in words of one syllable" that the Human Rights Act "is here to stay", home secretary Theresa May responded this week by saying she'd like to see the New Labour legislation scrapped.

Had the Conservatives been elected with an outright majority, its government would have been well on the way to replacing the Act with a UK bill of rights by now. This would have redefined the UK's relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights, signed after the Second World War, which Tories say is being taken far too literally.

Attorney-general Dominic Grieve, the government's chief legal adviser, says it's "premature" to say whether the Clegg-May clash means there won't be a bill of rights in this parliament. The coalition has set up a bill of rights commission examining the options, which is still only in the early stages of its work.

MP Dominic Raab, who was chief of staff to Grieve when he was shadow home secretary, is realistic about its chances. "It will in my view take a Conservative government for us to see the level of human rights settlement we want to see," he told a fringe event in Manchester this lunchtime.

Raab is probably right, and Grieve knows it. Both appear to be playing the long game, as they look to the controversial issue of prisoner voting to make their cases for them.

This is one of Britain's biggest flashpoints with the European court of human rights. It has ruled that denying prisoners their right to vote is an infringement of their human rights. Parliament has subsequently voted overwhelmingly in favour of denying prisoners the vote.

An Italian case on similar issues – the deprivation of civil rights, as it happens – is currently working its way through the court. This will lead to the ECHR's grand chamber reassessing the issue. Britain will have six months in which to intervene, which it's been given permission to do as part of this process.

Raab reckons that any revised proposals put forward once this has been completed should be put to another parliamentary vote – thus dealing with the ECHR's argument that parliament has not yet had a direct say on the issue. It's on tricky ground here, he reckons. "Strasbourg have created a constitutional crisis, where it's Strasbourg versus the elected lawmakers of a mature democracy."

Prisoner voting may yet prove the decisive in undermining public confidence in the ECHR, thus paving the way for the bill of rights Grieve and co had planned so extensively for. Just a decade after the Human Rights Act was passed, a further redefinition of British citizens' fundamental rights could be closer than we think.