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Theresa May sells Tory members an empty promise: are they as gullible as she thinks they are?

26 April 2016

8:58 AM

26 April 2016

8:58 AM

What is Theresa May playing at? I mean, it’s one thing to treat the Conservative party’s remaining members as fools but it’s quite another to think the same of the rest of us.

Her speech yesterday in which she attempted to carve a middle way through the Tory euro-forest has been generally well received. And, as a piece of political positioning, May’s ‘Reluctant Remain’ approach allows her to be with the Prime Minister but not enthusiastically so and against Boris but not comprehensively so. It is, if you like, a Tory Goldilocks approach.

All of which is all very well and good and if this is the sort of thing you admire it’s the sort of thing you admire.

Unfortunately, as a matter of policy, May’s speech was garbage. That, actually, is probably putting it too kindly. The most eye-catching piece of drivel was the Home Secretary’s suggestion that the United Kingdom could, indeed should, leave the European Convention on Human Rights while remaining a member of the European Union.

Which is all very well and good – though, actually, when you start to think about it also rather depressing – except for one tedious detail: you can’t do that.

You really can’t.

Because the ECHR is embedded within the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. It gets worse. The ECHR is also part of the consolidated European treaties. It is planted deep inside the european project. It is part of EU law. And if you want to join the EU you have to sign up to ECHR. That’s part of the acquis process, spelled out here.

So how or why does Mrs May think the UK can leave all this behind while remaining a member of the EU? Perhaps she trusts that no-one will notice that her half-cake strategy is half-baked?

If, as may be unkind, we assume Mrs May knows that her preferred policy is unachievable then we must also presume that she thinks it prudent to treat her notional supporters as gullible fools. This is an interesting and useful data point to bear in mind when the full extent of Mrs May’s political ambitions become clearer.

Of course the alternative is not very much better. Perhaps Mrs May does not know that the ECHR is baked-in to the european project. In which case, one might wonder if she is competent to hold the position she currently occupies. Mrs May is either ill-equipped for office or she is trolling her own party, selling it an impossible dream that can never become a reality.

Perhaps it is a bit of both. That is, perhaps the Home Secretary does not appreciate the legal complexities imposed by her preferred policy and so believes something real really can be fashioned from her dreams.

OK. But how’s the British Bill of Rights coming along? It’s been a year since it was going to happen within the first hundred days of a Tory ministry being formed. And yet, oddly, there is still no sign of it appearing.

Perhaps that’s because it can’t be done either. Or at least not done easily or simply or quickly or even in ways that don’t, at some point, leave sensible people scratching their heads and asking ‘why the hell are we doing this anyway?’ That is, the best-case scenario for some British Bill of Rights is one in which said bill just replicates the status quo but gives it a fancy new badge. But what’s the point of spending political capital on a prize as trivial as that?

It would also, you know, be difficult to do. Ministers in London continue to talk as though the rest of the United Kingdom does not exist. Tediously, however, it does exist even if this existence also complicates matters for ministers at Westminster.

The ECHR, you see, is not just planted in EU law it is also a central plank of the Good Friday Agreement. Leaving the ECHR means breaching the terms of that agreement. And changing the Good Friday Agreement is the sort of thing that is only supposed to be possible if agreed to by referendums on both sides of the Irish border. Good luck with that.

But even in the unlikely event Belfast signed up for this cockamamie Project I’ve Got A Leadership Contest To Win your difficulties wouldn’t end there. Because you’d need Edinburgh to get on board too. The ECHR is planted in Scotland’s devolutionary settlement too and while the constitution is a power reserved to Westminster it is also the case that any attempt to change that settlement, especially a major change of this sort, requires the consent of the Scottish parliament too. Good luck getting Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to agree to that.

So it’s all pretty straightforward then. Mrs May simply needs to get every other EU member state to agree that the UK, uniquely, can remain a part of the EU club but with an opt-out from the ECHR. And then she needs to persuade Sinn Fein and other Irish nationalists to alter the Good Friday Agreement. And then she needs to persuade Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to allow Mrs May to alter the terms and conditions of Scotland’s devolution settlement. Oh, and then she needs to come up with something to replace the Human Rights Act and the ECHR it contains.

Pretty straightforward, then. And bound to happen.

Or not.

On balance, I think it better that Mrs May knows she is peddling a pup to gullible Tory members and voters than the alternative which is that she does not know this and, instead, sincerely believes in the claptrap she proposed yesterday. Cynicism is, on the whole, preferable to irredeemable stupidity.

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