By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron may find a solution to the Abu Qatada problem "within the existing legal regime", as the Home Secretary put it yesterday. Britain may reach a new agreement with Jordan about evidence that could be used in court. An appeal to the European Court of Human Rights's Grand Chamber might just work. It may even be that the new Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) regime is amended on the hoof, as the control order system that preceded it used to be. But whether or not Abu Qatada remains free for long to take his children to school – we await an ECHR ruling declaring that he has a human right to become a parent governor – the Prime Minister is trapped in a bind which he himself has approved.
On the one side of the argument are Nick Clegg, Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve, the Liberal Democrats, the Guardian and the BBC (which has apparently instructed its staff not to call Qatada an extremist): their bottom line is that Britain must obey the rulings of the ECHR. On the other are almost the entire Conservative Party, most of the press – the entire media "quad" would have editorialised today against the ECHR decision had not the Daily Telegraph already done so – and the voters: their strong inclination is that we must quit the court if necessary.
The commission that the Prime Minister set up to examine a British Bill of Rights has sat for almost a year. It has got nowhere – an impasse predictable from the start, given the differing views of its members. Its existence is a reminder that the problem of Britain's relationship with the ECHR cannot be solved simply by bundling Qatada on to a Jordan-bound plane – justified though such action would be. The commission was established after the Commons voted overwhelmingly to keep the ban on prisoners voting. There is no sign that the court is prepared to change its mind and declare that the ban should stay.
The Government gave up trying to contain last year's Conservative revolt over votes for prisoners. Any future Commons vote would deliver the same verdict. Tory anger over the antics of the court is likely to spill over into important EU-related decisions, such as whether or not to give more money to the IMF. The Conservative part of the Coalition could agree on the introduction of a British Bill of Rights – after all, one was proposed in the party's election manifesto – which it is claimed would give British courts more room for manoevre.
But it is hard to see how such a measure, even were it to be effective, could be enacted in time to head off a showdown with the ECHR over votes for prisoners – even were one ready for consideration, which of course is not the case. Admittedly, a reshuffle wouldn't solve the conundrum which the Prime Minister faces. None the less, it is hard to see how it can be solved without Conservative Ministers in place whose views are more closely aligned to those of their colleagues, party members and the voters. Such change would leave Liberal Democrat Ministers isolated as the voice in Government supporting prisoners' right to vote – not an easy position for them.