Right-wing Conservatives want Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights.
LONDON — For years, U.K. Conservatives seeking right-wing support have floated idle threats to pull Britain out of Europe’s top human rights treaty. This time, they might actually mean it.
As a steady stream of undocumented migrants continues to arrive on U.K. shores, British ministers are running out of ideas on how to deliver Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s totemic promise to “stop the boats” crossing the English Channel.
And with Sunak’s flagship deterrence plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda still snarled up in the courts after a flurry of human rights claims, an increasing number of Conservatives want Britain to take a more radical step — leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) altogether.
It would be a seismic decision. Britain was one of the driving forces behind the drafting of the ECHR in 1950, with Winston Churchill hailing its charter as “central to our movement.” Today, the only European nations that are not members are Russia — expelled last year after invading Ukraine — and its closest ally, Belarus.
But increasing numbers of influential Tories say the ECHR — and its enforcing body, the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg — are outdated institutions that prevent Britain from securing its borders in an age of mass migration.
Nick Timothy, formerly the top aide of ex-PM Theresa May — and set to become a Tory MP next year — wrote this month that leaving the ECHR is “vital” to British interests. Timothy has worked as an independent consultant to current U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who also supports leaving the ECHR.
“The European Court at Strasbourg blocked the first flights to Rwanda,” he wrote. “ECHR rights have blocked the deportation of terrorists and countless foreign criminals … If we want a functioning immigration system, we should be prepared to leave.”
Dominic Cummings, another former Downing Street aide and the mastermind of the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign in 2016, also advocated leaving the ECHR on his widely-read Substack blog this month.
The Tories are trailing Labour badly in the opinion polls, and urgently need to galvanize support ahead of next year’s general election.
“My [local Tory] councilors would love it, my residents — the bulk of them — would be very supportive, given there is a strong connection between that and the Brexit vote,” said one former Cabinet minister, who represents a strongly Brexit-backing constituency.
Back to the Brexit wars?
But as with Brexit, Brits are divided over the need for such a radical step. In more liberal parts of southern England, Tories are fearful the move may backfire.
“If you are up against [the centrist] Lib Dems in say Winchester or Colchester, that is going to cost you the seat,” the ex-minister quoted above warned.
Recent polling for the More in Common think tank found half of voters think Britain should remain an ECHR member, with the other half roughly split between those who think Britain should leave (28 percent) and undecideds (23 percent).
And 41 percent said a Conservative pledge to leave the ECHR would make them less likely to vote Conservative, while only a quarter (26 percent) said it would make them more likely to do so.
“The notion of going back to ‘Brexit Wars’ fills people with dread,” More in Common’s Luke Tryl said. “They just don’t want to be talking about Europe. They want to be talking about shopping prices, [National Health Service] waiting lists, that type of thing.”
Nevertheless, some Downing Street aides are attracted to the idea of fighting an election on ECHR membership, seeing an opportunity to paint their Labour opponents as weak on immigration.
Sunak himself remains skeptical, given the likely international consequences for the U.K.
Western allies would not look favorably upon a British decision to join Russia and Belarus outside of Europe’s ECHR club. And ECHR membership is already written into both the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and the U.K.’s post-Brexit cooperation deal with the EU.
Joelle Grogan, senior researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said exiting the ECHR would put the U.K. “in breach” of the Good Friday Agreement, and that newly-inked legal and judicial cooperation with the EU would likely be suspended. More broadly, she warned, Britain’s international credibility on human rights would be ruined.
“It would certainly quite fundamentally damage improving relations with the EU, because it is certain to breach a very foundational agreement on the island of Ireland,” Grogan said.
This would be a tough pill to swallow for Sunak, who has worked hard since taking office last October to rebuild relations with Europe. His so-called Windsor Framework deal with the EU is seen as one of the crowning achievements of his premiership so far.
For this reason, plenty of colleagues believe the PM will resist calls for an all-out pledge to depart the ECHR.
“It is not performance art, this is serious decision-making,” said Robert Buckland, a former Tory justice secretary and an outspoken critic of calls to leave the ECHR. “I know the PM believes in that. He is a serious person and believes in doing serious policy and politics.”
But if the Supreme Court rules Sunak’s Rwanda scheme unlawful later this year — due to Britain’s ECHR obligations — the pressure on the prime minister will grow.
It is “very likely” more Tory MPs and even serving ministers would call for Sunak to act, said one former Tory strategist who still has strong links to the party. An adverse court ruling would also give “more ammo” to backroom team members who are already advocates of the move, he noted.
And plenty of Tories see the need for a clear dividing line with their Labour opponents as they head into the next election.
It is a “row we want to have with the Labour Party,” the strategist said, noting that Labour leader Keir Starmer — a former human rights lawyer — would be unlikely to match such a pledge.
A second ex-Tory strategist, like Cummings a veteran of the Vote Leave campaign, suggested Sunak might offer a referendum on ECHR membership — and said they were supremely confident of the outcome.
“That’s the sort of campaign you’d want to be involved in,” they said. “You’re either on the side of the people trying to control our borders, or you’re on the side of the European judges in Strasbourg. It wouldn’t even be close. We’d win 70/30, or 80/20.”
The Labour Party is watching nervously, having thus far tried to avoid directly opposing Sunak’s tough rhetoric on immigration.
One aide to Starmer acknowledged there was “potential salience” to the ECHR issue, and said the Tories would likely get the backing of the “right-wing press” in any campaign. But they were skeptical Sunak could make it a “saleable policy.”
In the 2019 election — fought on a “Get Brexit Done” dividing line — the Tories had the “genius of Cummings and the sheer personality and force of [Boris] Johnson” behind them, the Labour strategist said.
“This time they have a PM who is a terrible campaigner and isn’t really committed to it … You can’t run a campaign that is both about leaving the ECHR and about steady competence.”
Even if Sunak resists pressure to take the plunge on ECHR membership, his right-wing colleagues will not give up the fight.
For if the polls are born out and the Conservatives lose the next election, the party is likely to be in the throes of another leadership contest soon after.
And the Tory grassroots members who would pick the next leader would likely swoon over candidates offering a hard-line stance on ECHR membership.
Braverman made no secret of her ambitions to lead the party in 2022, and her support for ECHR departure could well influence the debate next time around.
In the meantime, Tories can only watch Sunak and wait. As the first Tory strategist quoted above said: “The question is — does Rishi have the balls to do it?”
Source : Politico