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Tory Moderates Are Spooked By Threats Of Leaving ECHR

Home Secretary Suella Braverman during a trip to Maryland, USA (Alamy)

3 min read

There is growing concern among moderate Conservative MPs that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could shift towards 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.

The UK's place in the ECHR has emerged as one of the biggest dividing lines within the parliamentary Tory party, and is set to be a heated debate among 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 stop illegal migrants arriving in small boats. 

In June, The Court of Appeal ruled that the government's policy of deporting illegal immigrants to Rwanda was unlawful as it breached protections contained within the ECHR. The Supreme Court will hear the government's appeal against that verdict in October, with a ruling expected in November. MPs who want PM Sunak to adopt a harder line on illegal imigration say he should be prepared to quit the ECHR if the Supreme Court rules against the government.

Conservative MPs who take a harder line on small boats crossings view Home Secretary Suella Braverman as their main representative at the Cabinet table.

Braverman's personal view is that the UK should leave the ECHR. Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, the home secretary anyone who calls for reform of the treaty or other international refugee agreements will be "smeared as anti-refugee". The speech has been widely viewed as a preemptive leadership pitch by Braverman to the right of the Conservative party.

For months, Downing Street has insisted that leaving ECHR is not government policy, and moderate Conservatives who vehemently oppose abandoning the treaty have been that confident that despite Braverman's rhetoric, Sunak would not actually contemplate doing so.

But a report by The Times that No 10 had authorised Braverman's speech to the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington this week, in which she was highly critical of the treaty, has unsettled them.

One moderate Conservative MP said they were "spooked" by the home secretary's rhetoric on Tuesday. Another One Nation Tory MP, a former minister, told PoliticsHome: "We all thought she was freelancing, and yet No 10 appear to have seen the speech."

Former Cabinet minister Damian Green, who chairs the One Nation group of moderate Tories, has told a forthcoming edition of The House Magazine that staying in the ECHR is a "red line" for the group of around 80 Conservative MPs – setting up a major row between Sunak and that wing of the parliamentary Tory party if he decides to put leaving the treaty on the table.

The renewed speculation about the ECHR comes as Sunak tries to find dividing lines with Keir Starmer's Labour at the next general election, which must take place by the end of 2024.

While the Labour Party has enjoyed large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls since the beginning of this year, Conservative party strategists see immigration as an area of weakness for the opposition party which they can exploit in the run-up to polling day. 

There is doubt in diplomatic circles, however, that Sunak would make leaving the ECHR policy given the severe damage it would likely do the UK's relationship with the European Union.

The Prime Minister has made rebuilding UK ties with Brussels a key part of his premiership since entering office in October following several years of post-Brexit acrimony.

The improved atmosphere between the two sides helped paved the way for the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland and UK involvement in the EU's Horizon science scheme, with an agreement on law enforcement data-sharing expected to be agreed in the coming weeks.

A UK move to leave the ECHR would risk undoing the work Sunak has done to repair that relationship. One former minister said leaving the contention would make the UK look like an "international pariah" to its allies.

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