3 minutes reading
There are growing concerns among moderate Conservative MPs that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could switch to a policy of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in a bid to improve his party’s prospects at the next general election.
Britain’s place in the ECHR has become one of the biggest dividing lines within the Tory parliamentary party, and will be a heated debate between Conservative MPs between now and the general election, which must be called before the end of 2024.
Many MPs on the right of the Conservative Party want the government to withdraw from the treaty, arguing that scrapping it will make it easier to prevent illegal migrants from arriving in small boats.
In June, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s policy of deporting illegal immigrants to Rwanda was unlawful because it violated the protections of the ECHR. The Supreme Court will hear the government’s appeal against that ruling in October, with a ruling expected in November. MPs who want Prime Minister Sunak to take a tougher stance on illegal immigration say he should be prepared to leave the ECHR if the Supreme Court rules against the government.
Conservative MPs who are taking a tougher stance on small boat crossings see Home Affairs Minister Suella Braverman as their most important representative at the Cabinet table.
Braverman’s personal view is that Britain should leave the ECHR. The interior minister said in Washington on Tuesday that anyone who calls for reform of the treaty or other international refugee agreements “will be smeared as anti-refugee.” The speech was widely seen by Braverman as a pre-emptive leadership presentation on the right of the Conservative Party.
For months, Downing Street has insisted that leaving the ECHR is not government policy, and moderate Conservatives who are strongly opposed to quitting the treaty are so confident that, despite Braverman’s rhetoric, Sunak wouldn’t really consider doing so to do.
But a report of The times Number 10’s endorsement of Braverman’s speech to the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington this week, in which she was highly critical of the treaty, has upset them.
A moderate Conservative MP said on Tuesday they were “shocked” by the Home Secretary’s rhetoric. Another One Nation Tory MP, a former minister, said PoliticsHome: “We all thought she was a freelancer, and yet Number 10 seems to have seen the speech.”
Former minister Damian Green, chairman of the One Nation group of moderate Tories, has told of The House Magazine that staying in the ECHR is a “red line” for the group of around 80 Conservative MPs – causing a major row between Sunak and that wing of the Tory parliamentary party if he decides to table the treaty.
The renewed speculation about the ECHR comes as Sunak tries to find dividing lines with Keir Starmer’s Labor Party at the next general election, due in late 2024.
While the Labor Party has enjoyed large double-digit leads in opinion polls since the start of the year, Conservative party strategists see immigration as a weakness for the opposition party that they can exploit in the run-up to election day.
However, there are doubts in diplomatic circles that Sunak would abandon the ECtHR’s policy, given the serious damage it would likely do to Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
The prime minister has made rebuilding British ties with Brussels a key part of his premiership since coming to power in October after several years of post-Brexit acrimony.
The improved atmosphere between the two sides helped pave the way for the Windsor framework for the involvement of Northern Ireland and Britain in the EU’s Horizon science programme, with agreement expected to be reached in the coming weeks sharing law enforcement data.
A British decision to leave the ECtHR would risk undoing the work Sunak has done to repair that relationship. A former minister said leaving the fight would make Britain look like an “international pariah” to its allies.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of British politics anywhere on the web, offering high-quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe