As Lord Faulks reminded us yesterday, this week marks the one year anniversary of Theresa May’s big intervention in the EU referendum debate.
In it, to the undoubted horror of many on the Remain side, the then-Home Secretary argued that it was much more important for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, and the jurisdiction of its court, than the European Union.
This policy has vanished since May became Prime Minister, despite Faulks and Dominic Raab having been working on a consultation on the issue when she took office. Now today’s papers report that it won’t be in the manifesto.
As Faulks concedes, there are plenty of reasons for the Government to file this problem away for the time being, not least the fact that Brexit is surely going to consume most of its constitutional attention over the next few years.
The devolved issue is also likely looming larger in May’s mind than it did in his piece. Whilst it isn’t true that either the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly depend on the Human Rights Act constitutionally, they will nonetheless be one of the biggest political hurdles to repealing it and the Prime Minister may have decided that this is too sensitive a moment for the Union to put any further strain on it.
Even as a staunch supporter of what Faulks calls the “full fat” option – full repeal of the HRA, withdrawal from the ECHR, and letting British law and institutions uphold our rights as they did before – I think May has likely made the right call. But there are a few caveats.
First, silence would be far preferable to any commitment not to withdraw. Although our relationship with the Court is currently peaceable Faulks is right to warn that it may flare up again – especially if we deploy troops somewhere – and such a promise to the electorate would rob the Government of important leverage.
Second, if May is serious about getting this reform through at some point then she ought to at least start paving the way in this Parliament. That means tackling the heavily entrenched anti-Conservative majority in the House of Lords.
An elected upper house remains as bad an idea as ever it was, but she should seek a way to reinforce the traditional operation of the Lords, restore the balance of power to the cross-benches, and penalise those peers who behave like partisan senators.
Finally, it’s worth noting that this retreat on the ECHR fits into a pattern of stories that suggest indecision on the part of the leadership about the manifesto. The 0.7 per cent aid spending floor was going, then it wasn’t. The papers thought the ‘triple lock’ might go, but then they report it might be in after all. And that’s notwithstanding Patrick McLoughlin opening fire on Philip Hammond in the middle of the campaign.
Add too many such stories together and the impression is given of indecision and a lack of purpose. Despite the polls, this isn’t an election the party can coast through: Tony Blair recognised that he needed to sprint to the finish in 1997, and if the Tories want their own 1997 they need to do the same.
That means having a coherent, positive policy offering to supplement the Corbyn-bashing. Nick Timothy, at least, is not short of ideas for what Mayism could look like. Avoiding very difficult promises on the ECHR may be wise, but it’s no excuse for a timid manifesto. Not at this election.