Rage, exasperation, contempt: the London Bridge attack will provoke all three, sometimes at the same time, among the mass of voters. Why was an Islamist terrorist invited as a guest to a Cambridge University conference at Fishmongers Hall – apparently to describe “his experiences as a prisoner”? How did it come about that this criminal, jailed for plotting to blow up the London Stock Exchange, was released after only eight years in the first place?
Who decided that a tag was sufficient to restrain him? And while it is good that James Ford, a day release prisoner sentenced for murdering a disabled girl, helped to restrain Usman Khan, the terrorist in question, why was he also attending the event – especially since the girl’s family had not been notified? (The conference was titled “Learning Together”. Its Twitter account is @JustisTogether and is subtitled: “bringing students in Higher Education & Criminal Justice institutions together in transformative learning communities”.)
Business as usual, even down to the general election timing and London Bridge location, for the governing class. Boris Johnson sits uneasily at its apex, because of the office he holds. He can protest that he has been Prime Minister for less than six months. That unlike his predecessor, Theresa May, he hasn’t served as Home Secretary, let alone for six years. That his Conservative Manifesto, released prior to Khan’s murders last Friday, pledges “to end automatic halfway release from prison for serious crimes”.
All this is true – and unlikely to cut much ice with the electorate. Nor will the Prime Minister’s pledge of 20,000 new police officers necessarily convince. On Brexit, he is broadly seen as commited to the cause. But on funding public services, he has his work cut out: the struggle in those marginal midlands and northern seats is precisely over whether voter trust in his new leadership trumps atavistic fears of “the Tory brand”.
Furthermore, the timing of Khan’s attack was ominous. He may have been a “lone wolf” and he may not: further attacks could come. Even if they don’t, the questions with which this article opens – and others, too – open up a entire spaghetti junction of media enquiries. Who else has been released and where are they now?
Before Johnson knows it, his campaign could be lost on this road to nowhere. He is not simply up against the press’s instinct, even among bits of it neutral about it, to scythe down a “tall poppy” – this election’s front runner. Nor even against an isolated Jeremy Corbyn, as in the case of anti-semitism. In his pursuit of the Prime Minister over police funding, the Labour leader will have his entire party with him: Yvette Cooper, Sadiq Khan and all.
This is the moment for it and for all Johnson’s foes to turn this campaign round. He tried to hold them at bay yesterday by stressing that his “takeaway” is that criminals should “serve the term of their sentence”. But he needs to do much more than that, starting on The Andrew Marr Show this morning. That doesn’t mean generalist ranting against human rights, which are a way of understanding justice. Most voters seek both rights and security. Perhaps that is wanting to have one’s cake and eat it. If so, they have come to the right shop. No-one is better at having his cake and eating it than the Prime Minister. But to do more than that, he needs to get to the root of the problem.
The outgrowth of Khan’s story eventually leads back one to it. In 2013, jhe appealed successfully against an Imprisonment for Public Protection Sentence. These IPPs were introduced by Labour, allowed for indeterminate sentences and were abandoned by the Coalition amidst “complaints they had been misused to keep some individuals incarcerated without a proper timetable to be considered for release”.
The long and short of it is that Conservative Ministers will have believed themselves vulnerable to legal action – to “lawfare” – by pro-Islamist lobby groups seeking to exploit human rights legislation, including the European Convention on Human Rights.
Khan appears to have been caught up in of the wider one of the cat-and-mouse game between those lobbies and the Government – in which Ministers scramble to head off activist judicial rulings, as they see it, or find themselves forced to respond to them. Hence the replacement of IPPs by extended sentences with a fixed tariff. One of these was given to Khan on appeal. This takes us all, including Johnson, to the heart of the matter.
Margaret Thatcher once said that “we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at European level”. Have we rolled back the frontiers of European integration, taking back control from the European Union, only to see them reimposed by the European Court of Human Rights?
To answer with a resounding No does not imply tearing up Britain’s membership of the convention. The Court is entitled to declare whether or not the Government is in breach of the latter. But as David Davis writes on this site today, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Ministers should simply bow to the court’s ruling.
In 2011, the Commons voted by a majority of 212 against an ECHR ruling on prisoner votes. Davis and Jack Straw, working together, drove the result. The former said that “it’s for Parliament to stand up and say ‘no, this is our decision, not yours’ and then for the Government to go back and seek a solution.” In other words, elected MPs, not ECHR judges, should have the last word. The story of Khan is different, but the moral is the same.
As we say, Johnson’s response to Friday’s murders may not satisfy voters, if only because nothing any politician says could do so: the sense of impotence and abandonment runs deep. But Corbyn is irredeemably weak on terror. And by standing back from the details of Khan’s case to see the big picture, and responding authentically, the Prime Minister could do what is right as well as what is now electorally necessary.
Ensuring that sentences mean what they say – now Johnson’s law and order priority – will be impossible to effect without wider reform. Which means: reforming the Human Rights Act, curbing the abuse of judicial review, and getting the balance right between the ECHR and Parliament. The Conservative Manifesto leaves the door open to all three (see page 48). For Johnson, there must also be a sense in pursuing them of unfinished business. Asserting the rights of Parliament over the EU is half the European mission. Asserting it over the ECHR is the other half of – how shall we put it? – taking back control.