Analysis: You've betrayed the Jewish community, Jack Straw

By Martin Bright, March 11, 2010

The time has now come to tell the full story of how the government betrayed the Jewish community over "universal jurisdiction". In more than a decade of covering UK politics, I have never known a story quite like this.

It is now three months since David Miliband and Gordon Brown pledged to change the law that allowed an arrest warrant to be issued for Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

Last Thursday, the Prime Minister wrote an article for the Telegraph reaffirming his commitment to a change in the law (although, tellingly, he did not mention Israel by name). Within hours, Justice Secretary Jack Straw had issued a ministerial statement announcing a consultation exercise on the law change that means nothing will happen until after the election.

From the outset, Jack Straw has never been convinced and has done everything in his power to undermine attempts to introduce law change. For students of dirty politics, Mr Straw's actions since last December are a masterclass in ministerial skulduggery.

The Justice Secretary has a reputation for being the wiliest old fox in the Labour government. His latest manoeuvrings show that he hasn't lost his touch. With a closing date of April 6 for submissions to the consultation, there will now be no time to pass a new law before the election campaign begins.

Thus, Mr Straw has successfully outwitted the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and faced down pressure from the Israeli government and the UK Jewish community.

After the JC reported on January 7 that Jack Straw was blocking the legislation, I received a call from the Justice Secretary's special adviser, Mark Davies, who had clearly watched one too many episodes of The Thick of It. I will save JC readers the expletives, but he explained that the Justice Secretary was full square behind the plans to change the law. I would soon see how wrong I was, he explained, because the government's plans were to be announced the following week.

I asked for an on-the-record quote and Straw obliged with the following words: "I am keen to resolve this issue and am urgently discussing it with colleagues across government. We hope to come forward with proposals very soon." I took Mr Davies at his word, but this turned out to be a mistake.

Throughout this process, sources at the highest level of the Foreign Office and Downing Street have warned me that Jack Straw intended to torpedo the change in the law. Again, I will save readers details of the colourful language used about the Justice Secretary.

As January turned to February, Mr Straw began carefully to shift his argument. Where early delays had been explained by legal technicalities, now the problem became political: the growing resistance to the law change among Labour backbenchers. Mr Straw was now saying that he didn't want to "break the crockery".

By March, it had become a matter of judicial principle. Now Mr Straw argued that there could be no law change without further consultation.

It was the master stroke. And the final betrayal. I believe Gordon Brown and David Miliband wanted to change the law. But they were outmanoeuvred.

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council assumed they were negotiating in good faith. They will not make that mistake again.

Last updated: 9:48am, March 26 2010