DAVID Cameron has weighed in to an embarrassing dispute between two of his most senior cabinet ministers over a cat named Maya, using the occasion to bolster his right-wing credentials with Conservative Party members.
The British Prime Minister has long worked hard to present himself to voters as a modernising moderate, but when confronted with the “catflap” over Maya he sided with traditional Conservatives who rail against human rights laws, European influence in Britain and any sign of political correctness.
The trouble began when the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told this week’s annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester she wanted to toughen immigration rules to stop EU-inspired human rights laws preventing the deportation of illegal immigrants and foreign criminals.
“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act, (including) the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat,” she told the conference.
That act, which brings British law into line with the European Convention on Human Rights, has allowed hundreds of people to avoid deportation if they can prove that expulsion would breach their right to maintain their “family life” in Britain.
The right to maintain a relationship with a pet cat seemed ridiculous, and the hawkish Home Secretary’s promise to stop such abuses raised a huge cheer from her audience.
The problem is that lawyers familiar with the 2009 case say Ms May was making it up when she claimed Maya’s Bolivian owner avoided deportation “because he had a pet cat”.
The Judicial Office at the Royal Courts of Justice, which issues statements on behalf of Britain’s top judges, declared soon after Ms May’s speech that the cat “had nothing to do with” the decision to allow its owner to stay in Britain.
But even before that statement from the courts, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, had made it clear he simply did not accept his cabinet colleague’s version of events.
Within minutes of Ms May’s speech, Mr Clarke told a meeting on the fringes of the conference:
“I cannot believe anybody has ever had deportation refused on the basis of owning a cat.
“I’ll have a small bet with her that nobody has ever been refused deportation on the grounds of the ownership of a cat.
“It’s these daft misinterpretations of the act which are giving the whole thing a bad reputation.” Aides of the two ministers then competed to brief journalists about their differing interpretations of the legal significance of Maya.
Tension has been growing for some time between Ms May, who is responsible for police and immigration, and Mr Clarke, the Conservative Party’s leading liberal, who is in charge of the courts and prisons and has been cast by many right-wingers as soft on crime.
Mr Cameron and most Tories want to see the Human Rights Act scrapped or drastically watered down, but Mr Clarke, the most prominent pro-Europe MP in his party, agrees with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners that the act should be preserved.
The Prime Minister’s office backed Ms May’s version of events about Maya, but Mr Clarke and his aides continued to point to the details of the case, which involved a Bolivian student who overstayed his visa and then was convicted of shoplifting.
While trying to prove that he had a serious relationship with a British-based woman, the student’s lawyers cited the fact that the two shared ownership of Maya as one of several indications that they were a couple.
But the cat’s existence was not central to the court’s conclusion that the woman was his partner, and the decision to allow him to stay in the country was based on his relationship with the woman, not with the cat.
In his keynote speech to the conference yesterday, Mr Cameron showed his support for Ms May by joking at Mr Clarke’s expense after explaining that ministers had been recording audio books for the blind.
“There was one book that I chose personally. I said ‘Ken, this one’s called Crime and Punishment and I want you to read it, twice’,” Mr Cameron said.
“After yesterday we should probably have a group reading of Mog the Cat. Although if you, like me, read that book to your children at bedtime, you will remember that Mog the cat helps the police to catch the burglar, not keep him in the country.”