There have been signs recently that the European Court of Human Rights, whose essence is as much political as it is judicial, has been backing off a further confrontation over prisoner votes. Government sources say that some judges on the ECHR are willing to grant countries a greater “margin of appreciation”, and that there have also been indications that it doesn’t want a head-to-head over the issue with Ministers. But either way, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which oversees implementation of rulings by Strasbourg judges, has reportedlygiven Britain another year to report back on “progress” (such as it is).
A tip of the hat, then, to Dominic Raab, who has been Michael Gove’s point man to the Council. According to the Daily Telegraph, the Human Rights Minister “is understood to have delivered a hard-hitting speech to a Committee of Ministers meeting in September which made clear Britain was not going to back down”. “We made clear there’s no realistic prospect of lifting the ban on prisoner voting for the foreseeable future,” the paper reports him as saying. “This has been registered, and we don’t need to fall out over it” – a case that he used to make from the backbenches before his present appointment.
A mention in dispatches too for Edward Foulkes, the Government’s Minister responsible in the Lords, who has also been hard at work in the issue. But it is important to sound a warning note: judges are constantly coming to and leaving the ECHR, and its disposition may change. Furthermore, this latest development actually leaves Britain even less likely to quite the ECHR than before, since it is precisely confrontations with it over controversial issues that raise that eventuality. Not that our departure is now likely in any event. During the last Parliament, Chris Grayling walked party policy to the exit door. But at the election, the Conservative Manifesto stepped back from it.
Writing on this site in 2014, the former Justice Secretary reiterated the Party’s commitment to a British Bill of Rights: “Our Bill will break its formal link to UK Courts, so they no longer need to take account of its decision,” he wrote. “We hope that [other European nations] will accept our plans. But if they cannot, then we will invoke our treaty rights to withdraw from the Convention altogether, to coincide with the passage of the new Bill into law”. The manifesto repeated Grayling’s language about breaking the link, but not the commitment to leave the Convention (if necessary). And as this site has has pointed out before, there isn’t the Commons majority to deliver it anyway.