Sunday, 22 April 2012
The cool Mrs Theresa May is acting like a hothead New Labour’s first rule of government was a point blank refusal to be outflanked from the Right when it came to law and order. Theresa May leaves the Houses of Parliament after making a statement defending the Home Office's handling of the Abu Qatada affair By Peter Oborne Telegraph Every one of the great principles which for centuries have underpinned the criminal justice system in Britain came under attack: trial by jury, habeas corpus, free speech, even the separation of powers between executive and judiciary. Tony Blair, who had trained as a barrister, took the view that ancient liberties like a fair trial and the presumption of innocence belonged were Dickensian. He licensed a series of home secretaries, from David Blunkett to John Reid, to wage war on the judges, and undermined the judiciary’s standing and independence. It is greatly to the credit of Theresa May that when the Conservatives were in opposition she resisted this calculated populism and stood up for traditional liberties. Almost her first act in office was to put an end to ID cards, and early on she displayed a level-headed and unexcitable statesmanship of a kind that the Home Office had not experienced for many years. For some reason, Mrs May has “immatured” in power. The first sign that something was going wrong was when the Supreme Court sensibly ruled that sex offenders would be given the right to appeal against having to register with the police. Mrs May expressed outrage, announcing that she was “appalled’ by the ruling and would set the bar for appeals as high as she could. The came her hysterical call for the abolition of the Human Rights Act at last autumn’s Conservative Party conference, in the course of which she alerted her audience to the case of an illegal immigrant “who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat”. Embarrassingly for Mrs May, further investigation showed that her telling of the cat story was exaggerated. It turned out that the immigrant she cited, a Bolivian man named Camilo Soria Avila, did indeed own a cat. But his feline companion was only one factor taken into account by the immigration tribunal that allowed him to stay in this country on human rights grounds. A second example of Mrs May’s recklessness with the facts was more serious. It concerns Sheikh Raed Salah, a distinguished Palestinian politician, who was invited to address a meeting in the House of Commons. Mrs May banned the sheikh on the grounds that he had supported terrorism, had once written an anti-Semitic poem, and constituted a grave threat to public order. But, to the Home Secretary’s consternation, he was able to enter Britain unhindered last June. Sheikh Salah was imprisoned, and later detained under close house arrest. Earlier this month Mr Justice Ockelton of the Upper Immigration Tribunal found that the Home Secretary had been ''under a misapprehension as to the facts’’, that the sheikh did not hold the views she attributed to him, and that he represented no threat of any kind. More devastating, it now emerges that Mrs May made her decision on the basis of information provided by a single source, the Community Security Trust, an organisation that combats anti-Semitism in Britain. She appears to have made no serious attempt to check its allegations, and reached her decision in a matter of minutes. There are no two ways about it. Mr Justice Ockelton’s ruling, which received very little publicity, was humiliating for Mrs May, and damaging to Britain. It is important that we should be seen as a disinterested broker in the Middle Eastern peace process. To jail a distinguished visiting Palestinian on the basis of such limited testimony looks like evidence of bias. And now along comes the Abu Qatada affair, which threatens to pin down Mrs May as a serial bungler. To her credit she has resisted the temptation to deport Qatada immediately. When the appalling Conservative MP Charles Walker urged her in the Commons to press on without delay ''in getting this scumbag and his murderous mates on a plane and out of this country’’ the Home Secretary was dismissive. She very correctly insisted that, whatever her personal inclinations, she would respect the rule of law. Nor should she be blamed over the muddle over the date set for Qatada’s appeal. Mrs May has gallantly volunteered to shoulder the blame, but it is surely not her job to engage in such recondite technical questions as the difference between a legal month and an actual one. Her legal advisers should accept responsibility, if a mistake has been made, something that is not yet certain. Mrs May has not, however, displayed the cool, calm deliberation one would expect from a Home Secretary properly conscious of the gravity of her office. Lawyers for Qatada have asserted that he is liable to be tortured or, at the very least, convicted on the basis of evidence gathered under torture. This claim may be wrong, but it is a serious one. It was therefore disgraceful of Mrs May to exploit the prospect of Qatada’s imminent departure to his native Jordan as some kind of propaganda coup. There is a common calculation underlying the Home Secretary’s handling of Abu Qatada, Sheikh Salah and the cat at last year’s Tory conference. In each case Mrs May appears to have been extremely poorly briefed. She has acted in haste, without making sure of the facts, or even the lawful basis for her action. It may be she has been calculating that none of this matters. Mrs May is a renowned moderniser who once informed Conservative conference that the Tories must lose their image as the ''nasty’’ party. This modernising mission seems, in Mrs May’s mind, to involve an attack on the criminal justice system. Certainly New Labour gloried in its wars with the judiciary. It may have lost the fight in the courts, but it always won the battle of public opinion. Yesterday, the newspaper proprietor Rupert Murdoch arrived in Britain in preparation for next week’s Leveson hearing. For more than two decades his newspapers were openly hostile to the rule of law. They did not merely break the law themselves, but collaborated with Labour and Tory ministers in vicious battles against the judiciary, at one point threatening a ''name and shame’’ campaign against ''liberal judges’’ and other vulnerable minorities. Sometimes we may not like the decisions judges make, or the people they protect, but it is nevertheless important to recall the rule of law is at the heart of everything we are and do. It protects property, contract, freedom. Without it democracy is impossible. Every Home Secretary faces a choice between courting popularity and doing the right thing. Mrs May needs to return to the lucid rectitude of her early days in office.