Saturday 26 December 2020

Priti Patel, the Tories, and the Death Penalty

On the Saturday following the 2015 general election, yours truly went out with the stalwarts who'd pounded the streets of Stafford constituency. The soreness of our soles were matched by the bruises on our souls after the Tories had increased their majority, despite neither hide nor hair being seen of them on the campaign trail. I digress. Patronising the Post House, a tweet got passed around our table. The rumour, now long buried in the Twitter archive, said free of their Liberal Democrat "partners" the Tories were planning big cuts to maternity pay. There was consternation, but thankfully nothing came of it.

This episode came to mind reading this last night. i.e. The rumour Home Secretary Priti Patel has asked for a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty. Given her awfulness and authoritarianism, this has enough "truthiness" to be plausible. Previously, she was an advocate for capital punishment but claimed back in 2016 that she had changed her mind. Could she have switched back? Free of the EU and with an effective 80-seat majority, might this rumour have legs?

Well, yes and no. The politics of capital punishment isn't massively popular. A survey published this Summer found 21% of Conservative MPs wanted to see the restoration of the death penalty which, interestingly, was down on the third who supported it in the 2017-19 parliament. According to polling, 11% of Labour members and 31% of Labour voters would like to see capital punishment come back, with two-thirds of Tory supporters agreeing too. As a populist move, capital punishment might have the scope for reaching beyond the government's core support, but by the same token something as emotive - and repugnant - as the death penalty can repel people too, including some in their existing voter coalition. From a political point of view, with divisions entrenched and profitable for the Tories, and serving as the basis for new wars on woke/bigging up British nationalism, opening a new division with the potential for cutting across existing divisions is a politically risky move. Not that this would stop backbench Tory MPs or Nigel Farage from cashing in.

There's another constraint on the Tories if they're tempted to go down this road. Their sovereignty fetish is key for understanding why so many of them argued for Brexit, but their deal with the EU fundamentally stays their hand. The death penalty runs counter to the European Convention on Human Rights, of which the UK is a signatory. Moving to restore capital punishment, or threatening to do so undermines the ECHR, and this is explicitly against the deal Boris Johnson has committed the UK to. Not only would security cooperation cease if the UK are in contravention of or leave the ECHR, but the deal as a whole could unwind. Instead of getting on and pushing his pipedreams, would someone as congenitally lazy as Johnson embroil his government in a further round of tedious and boring disputes with the EU on the half-chance he'd politically benefit? Especially when the purposes for keeping his coalition can be better served elsewhere? Unlikely.

These are the stakes. Whether the Patel rumour turns out to be true or not, the politics are too uncertain and the returns too unclear for Johnson and his government to embrace the death penalty as his new culture war objective.

Image Credit


Lidl_Janus said...

If you're a Fleet Street pundit in 2020 who wants to sound clever but has no original ideas, the usual line to recycle about Boris Johnson is that his political instincts are 'liberal' (or sometimes 'libertarian'), which allows you to cast Brexit and other populist gestures as a Nixon-in-China thing rather than plain old opportunism. This might also be the excuse that keeps Tory Remainers from crossing over to the Lib Dems.

Bringing back the death penalty would kill this idea stone dead, so I can't imagine it going far. It may well be, like a lot of the shit Patel comes out with, empty signalling to the base.

Blissex said...

«This might also be the excuse that keeps Tory Remainers from crossing over to the Lib Dems.»

Those tory Remainers have as vote-moving issue ("must have") property prices and rents, not "Remain" ("nice to have"). Voters have only one vote, voting is not pick-n-mix, so they use it for their vote-moving issue.

Blissex said...

«Voters have only one vote, voting is not pick-n-mix, so they use it for their vote-moving issue.»

Just read a commenter on "The Guardian" who illustrated the issue (I know many people in the same situation) quite well:

The bigger question is why we keep voting for them? An Indian friend said he voted Tory to protect his inheritance from parents but they shafted him on junior doctors contract and now Brexit. Hard lesson learnt.

That inheritance is most likely a property with a ballooning price, but he is not yet a property rentier, he is mostly a worker, so his interests as future rentier and present proletarian are in conflict. He has only one vote, and the Conservatives are not going to let him have his cake and eat it too.