Baroness Warsi, the Tory Party, and the rule of law

August 6th, 2014

Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation marks the first ministerial departure on the grounds of principle for this government and the timing at least seems to have been totally unexpected by David Cameron. Typically of the Conservative party, some of their supporters have sought to ridicule Warsi by pointing out the clunky manner in which her resignation letter was couched.

Love her or loathe her, Warsi made some interesting points that extend beyond the scope of the government’s (lack of) policy on Gaza. If read carefully, it provides Labour an insight into malfunctioning within the Tory party and shows how the latest reshuffle really was a lurch to the right.

After ‘failing Grayling’s‘ disregard for the British legal system, it was long overdue to read from a government frontbencher that we should respect the rule of law, in this respect with reference to international law. Labour’s shadow justice team have worked hard to highlight the failings of the Tory led government’s disregard to law and due process in this country. Many people have seen the cuts to legal aid, introduction of employment tribunal fees and closures of courts as a niche topic really only of concern for the legal profession. However, we can now see how far reaching that disregard for law can be. If we don’t try and preserve quality of justice in the UK, then why should we be concerned about international law?

The tone of Tory party debate has become increasingly insular as it seeks to remove barriers to the sovereignty of Parliament. Everything, from the frequency of Judicial Review in the UK to the Supreme Court to the ECHR, has been viewed as an obstruction. The last reshuffle saw Tory centrists who were sympathetic and understood the operation of law nationally and internationally retired or moved to the backbenches. Warsi acknowledged the impact in her letter when she wrote “In many ways the absence of the experience and expertise of colleagues like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve has over the last few weeks become very apparent.” Well quite.

Without the steadying hand of ministers like Grieve, the government’s approach to justice both here and in the Gaza crisis has been left seriously flawed. Cameron may have caveated his remarks on Gaza by saying that he was not an international lawyer but he hasn’t been keen to have experienced lawyers around him either. The fact that the Tory party are so at sea in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is partially attributable to their inability to see the relevance and need for law.

Warsi has told us two important things about the Tory party at this moment; that they have lurched rightwards and that in doing so they have disregarded the rule of law. It will be part of Labour’s message in the run up to the general election that we are the party who understands law.

You cannot be a little bit for justice; it is an all or nothing concept. The Tory assault on the British justice system was a warning sign of their failure to grasp this.

We need a Prime Minister who will understand that some things must be inviolable. That must be someone who understands that the dividing lines between legal and illegal acts established in international law do matter.

Ed Miliband has shown that respect for international legal norms. More reassuringly still, he isn’t afraid to have a shadow legal team with lawyers in it, or even to marry one.