Cameron surrenders on human rights

David Cameron appears to have backed down in his attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act in 100 days. No legislation setting forth plans to do so will appear in today's Queen's Speech.

It's the latest retreat by the prime minister in a long string of attempts to change the Act. A briefing to the Times saw a government figure say they wanted to do the replacement of the Act "right, rather than quickly". So they'll consult with plans to come back next year and try again. Although a week ago they were saying it would be done in 100 days, so take that with as many lorries of salt as you desire.

During the consultation, lawyers will tell them what they have already been told: that the UK supreme court is already supreme, that we only have to 'take account' of Strasbourg rulings, that the Council of Europe will never tolerate an 'advisory' status, that the devolved assemblies will have to have a say on any changes, that the House of Lords will be within its rights to vote it down, that the Commons will probably defeat it and that even if it somehow got it through all those hurdles there's a stream of legal recognition from Europe which could inject the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law anyway.

As shadow justice secretary Lord Falconer told the Today programme:

"As far as I can see they've retreated on what they've said. They made these proposals in 2011. The need for a consultation five years later suggests they're aware it can't be done."

Indeed, if it doesn't happen now, human rights defenders can content themselves with the fact that it probably never will. As Falconer says, they've been banging on about it for some years. It recently looked like this really was the showdown we'd been dreading.

Last October, they published a very aggressive policy statement which envisaged leaving the European convention altogether. Then they were returned to power with a Tory majority for the first time in 20 years. Michael Gove was made justice secretary and Dominic Raab justice minister. Given they were two of the biggest brains available to Cameron, it suggested the Tories had a plan and were serious about it.

And yet it still fell apart. This was partly because of the Commons. That 12-seat majority looks very flimsy when you start considering the Runnymede Tories. Off the top of our heads we know Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke, David Davies, Andrew Mitchell, Damian Green and one anonymous government figure are among their number. That's half way to a defeat already. The SNP and other human rights campaigners said they were confident there'd be sufficient critical Tories behind the scenes to stop it.

So in the words of Menzies Campbell: welcome to test match cricket. Cameron may have a majority, but it is so small he is hostage to his own party – both its liberal flank and its right.

As Alex Salmond said this morning:

"The early signs are it hasn't taken long for this government to be blown off course."

The Lords argument was won. Anyone suggesting they couldn’t vote down the measure because it was in the manifesto hadn't read the manifesto. That commitment was weak whereas Tory promises were strong. The Lords would have been able to say that any radical plans went over and above the limitations imposed on it by the Salisbury convention. And the matter was of such constitutional import that they would have been able to vote against it anyway.

And then you come onto the devolved assemblies, which was a knot one could not untangle without splitting up the UK's human rights laws and furthering the cause of separatists everywhere.

It will now go away for a while, then perhaps come back next year – but it seems fairly clear now that the Tories aren't prepared to countenance the nuclear option of pulling out the European convention. So in all liklihood, the worst-case scenario we're looking at is reformulation of the Human Rights Act into a British bill of rights with the convention intact. Is it wise? No? Is it a total waste of time? Absolutely. But it is not a major threat to the human rights framework of the post-war world. So that's a plus.

We have to ask ourselves, is Cameron cynical or dim? Does he just not get it into his head that these obstacles are nigh-on insurmountable and therefore keep promising human rights reform without any recognition of his inevitable failure? Or does he enjoy poking the wasps' nest on a matter which is of sufficient legal complexity he knows most people will never take the time to understand it?

It must be the latter, but even this is not a clever strategy. Doing it during election time on the assumption you can blame the Lib Dems when you have to eventually back down? Fine. It's not honourable but it's understandable. But his decision to use his moment in the sun after the election to make promises he knew he'd struggle to keep? That's just a waste of valuable political capital.

He does this quite often. Even after the failure of his first promise to get immigration down to the tens of thousands, and in the full knowledge that net migration is something he simply can't control, Cameron recently made the promise all over again. And now he does the same thing on human rights. The prime minister is, as ever, a short-termist. He does not think far ahead.

But in this case, it was a choice between his own inadequacy and the proper functioning of one of the greatest civilising missions in human history. So we should be grateful that, for now at least, his inadequacy won.