Party conferences are difficult things for the majority parliamentary party. You have to rouse the faithful but the course of government is already set. One moment of temptation – by applause or a headline – and some department is stuck with an initiative that went down a storm in the hall but looks daft in the daylight. The Tories managed fairly well. They recognised that, for all their flights of fancy in opposition, government imposes some discipline.
A measure of mood music is unavoidable. Chris Grayling played on intruder-bashing. This was the issue with which Jack Straw cheered up the 2007 Labour conference. The result was section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which ‘is intended to clarify the operation of the existing defences’ to assault (section 76(9)). Of course, it doesn’t: it hopelessly obscures them by seeking to introduce a subjective test of the circumstances of the case as understood, reasonably or not, by the assailant. Grayling carefully avoided saying whether his idea would make much difference. He just repeated that he was ‘raising the bar’. He conceded, as did David Cameron later, that it wouldn’t go far enough to cover knifing an already unconscious burglar. Both had to agree that court cases about intruder-bashing were relatively rare. So, job done: no great harm.
Grayling had to be allowed to differentiate himself from Ken Clarke, widely seen as an inveterate softy. But he is, of course, in a bind. Charles Clarke, David Blunkett or John Reid could wow conferences with things like anti-social orders, regardless of the cost. Jack Straw could announce, god help us, enormous new titan prisons. Now there is no money in the till. As justice secretary, Grayling is limited to sounding tough and looking menacing. However, his main job is to cut his budget by a quarter.
So, no new custodial sentences: just about enough on toughening community sentences to get on the six o’clock news. We just cannot afford the extravagances of bygone conferences. In that regard, the current budget cuts have a beneficial side. The big silence of the conference was over the European convention on human rights – aside from a couple of visceral roars from Theresa May and Grayling. This left the still, small, sensible ministerial voice of the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, telling a Justice/Society of Conservative Lawyers fringe meeting that he opposed any attempt to leave: ‘It would put us in a group of countries that would make very odd bedfellows.’ He had in mind Belarus, described by a CIA factsheet as ‘a republic in name but, in fact, a dictatorship’ under president Lukashenko.Grieve reminded his audience that ‘there is no government policy of withdrawing from the convention on human rights’.
The conference was, for once, relatively clear of EU issues, at least in the set speeches. The prime minister got away with the barest of hints that he was coming round to a referendum on continuing membership of the EU. However, hanging in the air more immediately is the government’s response to a letter from 100 Tory MPs urging a pull-out from the EU programme of collaborative legislation on criminal justice. This arises from the Lisbon Treaty, which allows us to opt out of criminal justice measures agreed before the treaty became effective. At the centre of discussion is the European Arrest Warrant (EAW).
Heavyweight academic advice is that opting out is a minefield. Cambridge University’s Professor John Spencer says that we would have to opt back in to a lot of the measures and failing to do so ‘would prioritise antipathy for the European Union above any benefit for British law enforcement or criminal justice that results from any of the EU measures’.
The party hierarchy clearly understood the danger of over-popularisation of the issue at the conference. May announced government consideration of its approach on the Monday after the conference was over. Hopefully, this was in recognition that the UK’s response merits more mature consideration than it was likely to get at a Conservative party conference. The rapid extradition from Bordeaux of a teacher under the EAW; the opposition of senior police officers; and the taunting of the Liberal Democrats, floating the slogan ‘Tough on Europe, soft on crime’, all inhibit a crowd-pleasing line.
We will have to see how the debate on the opt-out progresses. As for the conference, party managers should regard it as a success: enough headlines, not much damage.
Roger Smith is director of human rights organisation Justice