Rishi Sunak faces Tory backlash over proposal to toughen ECHR stance


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Rishi Sunak has been warned he would face a mutiny if he made an election threat to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, after he proposed “toughening up” the party’s policy on the ECHR to Tory ministers.

One cabinet member said that any suggestion that Britain would leave the ECHR could undermine the integrity of the UK, since the convention underpins the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of strife in Northern Ireland.

A senior Conservative MP said moderate Tories were already gearing up for a fight if Sunak went down that path. “The WhatsApp group is alive with people saying they won’t take this lying down. We will just not support that.”

Senior Conservative officials confirmed a report, first published by Bloomberg, that Sunak’s team discussed with ministers whether they would accept a toughening up of the party’s policy on the ECHR.

This would include a threat to leave if the UK could not reform the court while remaining a member. Downing Street insiders said it was “speculation”.

The ruling Tory party is focusing on immigration in the election as it trails Labour in the polls and seeks to head off a challenge from Reform UK and its anti-immigration leader, Nigel Farage.

Sunak has frequently referred to the ECHR, which oversees the convention, as a “foreign court”, insisting he would not let judges in Strasbourg stop Britain deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Home secretary James Cleverly refused to say on Tuesday whether the Conservatives could advocate leaving the ECHR in their manifesto, which is expected to be published in the coming weeks before the election.

“The point we have always made is that we are a law-abiding nation, but ultimately we need to take control of our borders,” he told the BBC.

“We have always said that if we’re presented with a decision whereby we are not able to control our borders we will always prioritise border security and border control.”

Sunak has long been urged by Tory rightwingers, including former home secretary and possible future leadership contender Suella Braverman, to put a commitment to leave the ECHR at the heart of the Tory manifesto. However, the issue is a faultline that runs through the party.

“If we reopened the question of the ECHR we would have to renegotiate the Belfast [Good Friday] agreement,” said the cabinet minister, warning there was a “real prospect” that could prompt demands for a border poll on reunifying Ireland.

Last month Sir Robert Buckland, Tory chair of the Commons Northern Ireland committee, warned the government that leaving the ECHR would throw up multiple problems in the region.

He said that witnesses to the committee’s inquiry concluded that “if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR it would have a detrimental impact on Northern Ireland” and had said that “adherence to a set of internationally agreed human rights standards” was important to all communities in the region. 

In two recent rulings, the High Court in Belfast ruled that key parts of two recent UK laws – the Illegal Migration Act and the Legacy Act – should not apply in the region, on the grounds that they contravened the convention. The UK government is appealing both rulings.

Another cabinet minister said: “We shouldn’t go down this route. Firstly, we haven’t made a compelling case to the public and, secondly, it would open up divisions in the party.”

One Conservative MP from the moderate One Nation group said that any suggestion that Britain might leave the ECHR was “profoundly un-Conservative” and would be “pandering to a shrinking demographic” of older voters who were tempted to vote for Reform UK.

Farage on Tuesday called on the UK to leave the ECHR in order to reduce net migration to zero, even as he dropped one of Reform UK’s immigration policies hours after becoming the rightwing party’s leader.

He said that a policy — stated in Reform’s draft manifesto earlier this year — to process asylum claims in the British Overseas Territories was not “terribly practical”.

“It’s a very difficult policy to work,” he told the BBC. “I took over yesterday. Give me 12 hours and I’ll sort it out.”

Additional reporting by Jude Webber



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