--first published in The New European--
With every day that passes, Rishi Sunak becomes more a passenger to events and less the leader of his party. His knife-edge Protocol talks are under threat by Eurosceptic scorched-earthers, his two predecessors are running their mouths about how much better they were at the job, and his Levelling Up Secretary is holding secret, unauthorised Brexit talks with the opposition.
Now under pressure from the ERG and DUP, Sunak could be tempted to follow through with his threat to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights to provide a rare point of unity for his Vote Leave Government. Despite the Attorney General’s pledge to address small boats “within” the ECHR this week, Deputy PM Dominic Raab on the same day said that the Government would ‘not rule out’ this withdrawal. If they do, eight decades of international cooperation on safeguarding our liberties could be lost–and the Good Friday Agreement with them.
The Tory right likes to link it to Brussels bureaucracy, but the ECHR predates the EU. It goes back to the Second World War, when famous wokeist Winston Churchill set up the Council of Europe alongside fellow Allied leaders. Churchill envisioned a supranational safeguard against the atrocities seen in the war. In the last decade, the ECHR has intervened on behalf of Syrian refugees, redressed wrongs from the Yugoslav Wars, and helped stem the resurgence of the far-right.
But since Brexit has made international cooperation a mortal sin, withdrawing the UK from the ECHR has become a white whale for Conservatives like Suella Braverman and Jacob Rees-Mogg. With yet another weak, unelected and unpopular Prime Minister, they have spotted their opportunity.
To be clear, this is not public pressure. Polls suggest that 53% of the public favours remaining in the ECHR compared to 22% against, and leaving it would mean the UK joining the distinguished ranks of Belarus and Russia as the only European countries outside the Convention. The fallout from this withdrawal could be another nail in the coffin of the UK’s international reputation as well as a defence for authoritarian governments who would call any British intervention on human rights rank hypocrisy.
To take Sunak’s fig leaf head on, leaving the Convention would do nothing for his pledge to stop Channel crossings, and it would not automatically allow the shameful Rwanda policy to go ahead. As many Tories have stressed, domestic courts are equally likely to strike the policy down upon appeal. Though the High Court judged the policy lawful, it rejected all eight individual deportation cases it considered.
Nor is the ECHR responsible for dangerous small boat crossings; it’s the Conservatives’ own nativist policies which pander to discriminatory myths about asylum seekers. Crossings have increased because the Conservatives have closed safe asylum routes to the UK. In fact, a recent study by Durham University found that Brexit has been a principal factor in the rise in small boat crossings. A Government serious about stopping these dangerous crossings would be working to create new routes that recognise the right to seek asylum under international law.
But, as Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak have made clear with their pursuit of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (against advice from the UK, the EU, the Irish Taioseach, and the US President), today’s Tories have no time for international law. And, just like the law-breaking NIP Bill, a withdrawal from the ECHR would also violate the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
The GFA explicitly invokes the role of the ECHR and subjects any legislation passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly to ECHR rulings. In plainer terms, the GFA entitles all people in Northern Ireland to the protection of the ECHR. This was an essential inclusion to reach a settlement after decades of conflict which saw human rights abuses by both the UK Government and paramilitaries. Sunak may want to paper over intra-party rebellion, but his proposal threatens the integrity of the agreement that ended 30 years of conflict.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. With Brexit crippling our economy and the public regretting the referendum by five-to-one, the Tories are left with only their ill-defined ‘sovereignty’ and those who beat its drum loudest. Even now, when the consequences are so clear, they are rewarding ideologues who view cooperation as weakness and courting controversy as leadership.
In this inverted reality, the ECHR withdrawal is just the latest crusade to shore up the Prime Minister’s faltering support. Brandishing your Europhobic credentials has been step one in crisis management for Tory PMs since David Cameron promised a referendum in 2015 but those engaging in this game plan more often than not find themselves hostage to it.
Through Theresa May’s Brexit deals and now the ECHR, we know how this story goes: Right-wingers squeal about a contrived encroachment on the UK’s sovereignty, their allies in the media amplify it, and the PM, who initially talks tough, is soon forced to engage in brinkmanship before settling for stasis and yet more division in their party.
As long as the current crop of Tories cling to power, this depressing cycle will continue. It will leave the UK with even less credibility as a global force for human rights, in the company of despots and dictators and desperately short of friends.