The news that prisoners are to be given the right to vote seems to have caused particular discontent among Conservatives at Westminster. According to James Forsyth, yesterday was a day of “Tory grumbles”,  though why he should have chosen Tuesday 2nd November for this particular accolade is unclear.  The Conservatives these days live in a state of perpetual sulk, punctuated only by moments of intense happiness, such as when George Osborne turns up at the despatch box to start cutting things.

The Tory state derives from the fact that, although notionally in power, they are the ones who always end up getting pushed around. Recent history tells us of course that this is a party that has no difficulty with being pushed around when the pushing is being done by a strong woman.  She is 85 now though, and beset by viruses and there simply isn’t the same frisson when Nick Clegg turns up to take you through the finer points of the pupil premium.  And if it isn’t the Liberal Democrats extracting the latest instalment of the pound of flesh demanded of David Cameron as the price for putting him in Downing Street, then it is the old enemy, Europe.

David Cameron’s “victory” at last week’s EU summit has left the Eurosceps distinctly unimpressed. True, he got half of Europe’s leaders to sign up to the idea that the budget shouldn’t go up by any more than 2.91% – and if it were me I’d be putty in the hands of a man who negotiates to the second decimal place – but expectation is all. Cameron had earlier backed a freeze to the EU budget. Even that reveals weakness. A good many Tory MPs don’t want the budget frozen. They want it eliminated altogether: wiped from the continent’s face  as a social evil, rather as we once managed with bubonic plague.

Now it is Europe again held to be at blame for the wicked plan to enfranchise the nation’s cons, thus overturning the provisions of the Forfeiture Act 1870, a piece of legislation that  many Tories fondly recall and some of them in all probability voted for.  I don’t know what tactics were employed in support of Wormwood scrubs suffragism – it may, given the ample opportunity, have involved quite a lot of chaining yourself to iron bars – but they have undoubtedly been effective since the European Court on Human Rights is on their side and David Cameron has decided – reluctantly it is said – to throw in the towel.  He told the Commons at PMQs today that he feels “physically sick” at the prospect of votes for prisoners, his sense of nausea not improved when a mischevious Labour MP reminded him that the package now comes with the right for lags to vote for new police commissioners.

Mr Cameron will might argue that his position is rooted in a long and honourable Conservative tradition of hostility towards the idea of people voting. Lord Salisbury battled heroically, but alas unsuccessfully in 1867 and again in 1884 against extending the franchise to the lower orders.  “The classes that represent civilisation”, his lordship wrote in the Quarterly Review, “have a right to require securities to protect them from being overwhelmed by hordes who have neither knowledge to guide them nor stake in the commonwealth to protect them”. The Conservative leader might thus conclude that such high Tory opposition owed less to a general anti-democratic urge than to a desire to tailor the franchise to a population most likely to vote Conservative.

I do not know whether Mr Cameron  represents civilisation – even Witney has its limitations – but he and his party might well aspire to represent that class of crafty, rules-are-made-to-be-broken, entrepreneurs with whom our jails are stuffed. The beauty of the European Court’s judgement, as I understand it, is that it leaves the Government free to choose which prisoners actually get access to the ballot box. It may be possible, for example,to sign up burglars, tax evaders and metric martyrs to the franchise while continuing to deny it to undesirables such as paedophiles and benefit cheats. A golden age of gerrymandering awaits.

Cameron had better hurry up though. The Court made its ruling five years ago and at this rate by the time prisoners get the vote, Ken Clarke will have ensured that there are none of them  left inside to enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

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