David Cameron used the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta to re-commit to scrapping the Human Rights Act after sources told The Right Honourable that behind closed doors the prime minister is lukewarm about its proposed replacement, the British Bill of Rights.
In a speech at Runnymede Green, where King John signed the charter in 1215, Cameron praised the influence of Magna Carta in spreading freedom and the rule of law. But he added “the good name of human rights has sometimes become distorted and devalued”.
Due to its absence from the Queen’s speech, many hoped that the Conservatives had dropped proposals to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a “Bill of British Rights”. But speaking yesterday, David Cameron said:
“Here in Britain – ironically the place where those ideas were first set out – the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted and devalued. It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights and their critical underpinning of our legal system. It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this.”
The move comes after mounting pressure to keep the bill from cabinet members including home secretary Theresa May, justice secretary Michael Gove and chancellor George Osborne.
However, sources familiar with the party’s thinking told The Right Dishonourable that Cameron “doesn’t believe in the bill”. Instead, it would seem that by delaying the “British Bill of Rights” Cameron had hoped to collect support against it. After failing to do this, he appears to be hoping that media-aided outrage will halt the proposed legislation.
Cameron’s reservations are justified – scrapping the 1998 Act would require yet another special UK deal with both the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the EU, for whom signing up to the ECHR is a condition of membership. It would also strain the very fragile union with Scotland and make international diplomacy on human rights issues harder.
In the hours that followed Cameron’s speech at Runnymede, The Guardian launched a scathing attack. This plays into Cameron’s hands: If the proposed bill continues to be unpopular the cabinet may be forced to scrap it, as they have only a small majority and can’t risk a party divided over a contentious bill this early.
What exactly the Tories hope to achieve by the repealing of the Human Rights Act and mooted introduction (or updating) of a British Bill of Rights remains mysterious. Right now the details of a new Bill of Rights are obscured from us, which makes it hard to see whether it would be of any benefit.