Howard’s Way?

The government’s record on human rights was the subject of an excellent debate last night put on by students at the BPP Law School in Holborn.

Labour was represented by the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith while the Tories put up the would-be Lord Chancellor Dominic Grieve.

Between the two QCs was Lady Falkner of Margravine, a home affairs specialist with the Liberal Democrats who seemed slightly out of her depth on legal issues – not that it stopped her from telling Lord Goldsmith that “everyone knew” he had got the law wrong on invading Iraq.

Despite that, Goldsmith seemed surprisingly relaxed. All the speakers were well received by a large audience of would-be lawyers.

One interesting fact emerged: Grieve disclosed that Goldsmith would have resigned from the government over its plan to allow the police to hold suspected terrorists without charge for up to 90 days. Rebel Labour MPs defeated Tony Blair on the issue in November 2005 and so the Attorney General remained in post. Goldsmith did not deny this when Grieve mentioned it.

What was particularly striking was how much of a common political outlook Grieve and Goldsmith share. Grieve praised Labour for introducing the Human Rights Act while the most that Goldsmith could say about Grieve’s planned enhancements to the Act was that they were unnecessary.

But is Grieve too fair, honest and straight to fight an election for the Tories, even in the traditionally non-political role of Lord Chancellor? For some weeks, there has been a rumour going round that David Cameron has offered the post to Michael Howard, whose decision to step aside as Tory leader nearly five years ago enabled Cameron to succeed him.

Under this plan, the Lord Chancellor would be back in the Lords, where he has been for the best part of a millennium. If it was thought inappropriate to have the head of a major spending department (slightly less so from today)  in the Lords, the posts of Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary could be separated, with the latter in the Commons.

That would certainly appeal to the voters. But there is no point in looking tough after the election. And if Cameron makes Howard shadow Lord Chancellor now, the Tory leader will seem as if he is desperately trying to jettison his team at the eleventh hour. So I don’t suppose it will happen.

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