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LONDON — “One of the great things we gave to Europe.” So said Boris Johnson, describing the European Convention on Human Rights back in 2016.
Suddenly, he doesn’t sound quite so keen.
The prime minister leaned into talk of withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and its founding treaty this week after judges intervened in a controversial attempt by the U.K. to deport refugees to Rwanda.
Opinion remains divided in Westminster on whether an embattled Johnson is merely playing to the Conservative gallery, or if the U.K. really is squaring up for a fight over the ECHR. What’s certain is that U.K. ministers are putting the finishing touches to a major shake-up of domestic human rights laws, with one eye carefully fixed upon the Strasbourg court.
The ECHR’s intervention this week — which provoked deep anger among Conservative MPs – scuppered what was meant to be a big moment for the U.K. government, after it struck a deal with Rwanda to process and settle asylum seekers overseas.
Up to seven people had been expected to be removed to the Central African country on the inaugural flight Tuesday evening, but the journey was halted after the court granted injunctions for three of those due to depart.
Johnson made clear he could now act to revise the U.K.’s relationship with the ECHR. “Will it be necessary to change some laws to help us as we go along?” he pondered. “It may very well be, and all these options are under constant review.”
A fight worth having?
There’s long a clear political rationale for Johnson to be seen as getting tough on the removal of asylum seekers, despite human rights objections.
He has been urged by MPs and advisers to return to “red meat” Conservative policy promises in the wake of seemingly-endless bad headlines over the Partygate scandal, in which Johnson was fined for breaching coronavirus lockdown rules.
“The battleground of the next election is not going to be COVID,” said an adviser to the Tory party. “It’s going to be the cost of living and immigration.”
The policy of deporting migrants to Rwanda allows Johnson to demonstrate he is at least seeking to “take back control” of the U.K.’s borders, as he promised during the Brexit referendum.
In the words of one long-serving Conservative MP: “Number 10 look at this as an opportunity for us to demonstrate whose side we’re on, and that can’t be a bad thing.”
Some observers suggest it also suits Johnson’s government to walk into a confrontation with the ECHR: ministers can say they are doing all they can to halt asylum claims, but that their hands are being tied by pesky judges in Strasbourg.
A Tory MP representing a Red Wall seat said: “The idea that a European court has blocked the intention of the U.K. parliament will be a huge help to the government.”
A Whitehall official agreed that this was part of the strategy, claiming the Johnson government “feeds off division and drama — they’re messy bitches.”
Johnson’s press secretary on Wednesday denied deportations were being used as a wedge issue, insisting these were “hugely important” matters for the nation.
Yet taking aim at the ECHR will undoubtedly go down well with a segment of Johnson’s party faithful who have long pushed for the U.K. to sever ties with Strasbourg.
The idea has long been discussed in Tory circles, and was most notably advocated for by Theresa May during her stint as home secretary in 2016. Back then, she accused judges of “binding the hands” of the British government.
Some MPs regard such a move as a final step in separation from European political processes — despite the court being completely separate from the European Union.
“It’s time we kicked these bastards into touch. For once I won’t apologize for my French,” one Tory MP messaged colleagues on a WhatsApp group Tuesday night.
While it may suit Downing Street to set hares running on this issue, it remains unlikely the U.K. is about to simply walk away from the ECHR anytime soon. Indeed, Johnson himself has sentimental ties to the convention, which could undercut any impulse he might feel to concede to MPs’ demands.
Britain played a central role in drawing up the convention under Winston Churchill, one of the current prime minister’s great heroes. Johnson’s maternal grandfather, James Fawcett, was president of the now-defunct European Commission of Human Rights from 1962 to 1984.
“We wrote it and actually I am a supporter of it,” Johnson said during the 2016 Brexit campaign. “I think it was one of the great things we gave to Europe. It was a fine idea in the post-war environment.”
And although withdrawal may sound appealing to some of Johnson’s more bloodthirsty backbenchers, it would be deeply controversial with the softer wing of his party.
Robert Buckland, the U.K’s former justice secretary, said that while the ECHR’s decision was “wrong,” those who advocated leaving it “are jumping the gun.”
Another Tory MP — a supporter of the Rwanda policy — urged caution as the U.K. tries to hold the moral high ground amid the conflict in Ukraine.
“If we want to be critical of Russia,” the MP said, “then the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights are the mechanisms whereby we can do that.”
Participation in the ECHR is also a supporting plank of the Good Friday Agreement, the hard-won peace deal cementing the end of decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. It’s an awkward fact for a British government locked in a post-Brexit row with Brussels over claims existing trade rules are threatening Irish peace.
“It’s really unhelpful for one department to be pushing that we are taking action to support Northern Ireland and protect the Good Friday Agreement, and then for another department to suggest we will be leaving the European Court that backs up the Good Friday Agreement,” said the same Whitehall official quoted above.
British Bill of Rights
Even if his main intention was to rally Tory troops with his comments, Johnson’s intervention on the ECHR undoubtedly fuels fresh expectations for the government’s broader plans for a human rights law shake-up through a long-promised British Bill of Rights.
The idea of a new charter on rights has been floating around since David Cameron’s premiership but it has never led to legislation — something Johnson promised to change in this year’s Queen’s Speech.
While the plans have not been finalized, the government says the new bill ought to reinforce the supremacy of the U.K. Supreme Court. A consultation was launched back in March, and specified that the government intends to include a provision “that affirms parliamentary sovereignty in the exercise of the legislative function, in the context of adverse Strasbourg rulings.”
A Whitehall official suggested work on that bill had “ramped up” over the last month, with aides suggesting the bill would now be published in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, not everyone is convinced that the Rwanda row will help Johnson in the end.
“If we say we’re going to do something and we can’t do it, at some point people do start to think you’re incompetent,” an ex-minister said.
Additional reporting by Eleni Courea.