A lot of sensible Tory backbenchers think that the coalition could have responded far more robustly to the Strasbourg court’s decision.The thing is that it will be a proxy for more than that.
If the whips are not careful, the whole issue could become a proxy for Tory concerns about the failure to move on a British Bill of Rights which its proponents claim would offer some protection from the rulings of the increasingly activist Strasbourg Court.
The proposals state,
• Prisoners sentenced to less than four years in jail will get the right to vote. Those sentenced to more than four years won't. The ECHR judgment doesn't mean all prisoners have to be allowed to vote, and a four-year cut off has been chosen because that is regarded as the distinction between a short- and long-term jail sentence. Judges will also have the right to remove the right to vote from prisoners sentenced to less than four years if they consider that appropriate.Prisoner votes is yet another area where UKIP are in tune with the vast majority of the British public, and the formal political establishment are off in cuckoo land.
• Prisoners will only be able to vote in Westminster or European elections. They will not vote in local elections or referendums. This means they will not get to vote for elected police commissioners.
• They will not be registered to vote at the prison. They will be registered at their former address, and they will vote by post or by proxy. This means candidates do not have to worry about a block of 1,000-odd prisoners from one jail affecting the result of a constituency election.
• MPs will vote on these measures next year. The government has to change the law by August 2011 to meet a deadline set by the ECHR.
Some Tory backbenchers see this, and some may rebel. However please don't think that opposition to prisoner votes is merely an issue for those who traditionally vote Tory. Ask around in Labour areas and the idea is trashed and any proponent is treated with contempt.
I am prepared to bet that if the coalition get this one past, which they will, then Mr Hirst will be back over in Strasbourg demanding that this new law be overturned. And a side bet is that he will win.
If you accept the jurisdiction of the ECHR, which this government does and UKIP rejects, then you accept their decisions. Not piecemeal, but in their entirety.