Exclusive: Rishi Sunak Sparks New Tory Civil War Over 'Westminster Issue' Voters Don't Care About

The prime minister has once again raised the prospect of the UK quitting the European Convention on Human Rights.
Rishi Sunak says he's prepared to take the UK out of the ECHR.
Rishi Sunak says he's prepared to take the UK out of the ECHR.
Damon Scheleur/HuffPost

Former Labour chancellor Denis Healey is the politician credited with popularising the first law of holes: once you find yourself in one, stop digging.

It’s safe to say that Rishi Sunak has yet to familiarise himself with its finer points.

This week, the embattled prime minister decided to re-emphasise his commitment to withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) if it once again blocks deportation flights to Rwanda.

Speaking to The Sun’s Never Mind The Ballots show, Sunak said: “I believe that all plans are compliant with all of our international obligations including the ECHR, but I do believe that border security and making sure that we can control illegal migration is more important than membership of a foreign court because it’s fundamental to our sovereignty as a country.”

It was no coincidence that the PM’s comments came in the wake of Home Office figures showing record-breaking numbers of small boats carrying asylum seekers across the Channel - the very thing that the Rwanda policy is meant to stop.

Unsurprisingly, Sunak’s remarks have been welcomed by those on the right of the Tory Party, who believe that nothing is more important than sending asylum seekers to east Africa.

However, HuffPost UK has learned that any moves to revoke the UK’s membership of the ECHR will spark yet another round of Conservative in-fighting.

Members of the party’s One Nation caucus of moderate MPs and peers are fiercely opposed to any attempts to circumvent Britain’s international legal obligations in order to get flights into the air.

Their preference is for the UK to remain a member of the ECHR and seek to reform the court from the inside rather than leave it altogether.

What’s more, they believe that the UK should work alongside other European countries to confront the challenge of rising immigration instead of seeking to go it alone.

There is another reason why Sunak would be ill-advised to pick a fight with judges in Strasbourg at a time when he needs all the votes he can get. Put simply, the vast majority of the public could not care less about the ECHR.

Tory peer and polling expert Lord Hayward told HuffPost UK: “It’s a Westminster issue. If you look at what people identify as important, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody mention the ECHR to me or my colleagues on the doorstep. It just does not come up in conversation.”

One former cabinet minister described the PM’s comments as “a pitch to the Reform UK vote”, a reference to the right-wing party which is currently eating into Tory support across the country.

A senior Tory insider said that leaving the ECHR would throw up way more problems than it would actually solve for the government.

They said: “I wish the PM would stop calling it a foreign court - it isn’t. It’s an international court which we helped set up.

“Leaving the ECHR causes huge problems with the Belfast Agreement and also the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU in respect of Northern Ireland, so you end up with no co-operation on law enforcement and criminal matters. It also won’t stop the boats.”

Others believe Sunak’s get-tough rhetoric is an attempt to shore up his position in the party as speculation continues to mount that he could face a leadership challenge if the local elections on May 2 are as catastrophic as experts predict.

“It’s just the latest piece of red meat thrown to the right of the party in the hope they won’t send letters to Sir Graham Brady,” said an aide.

Even the majority of voters who have an opinion on the ECHR believe that the UK’s interests are best served by remaining a member.

A poll last month by the More in Common think-tank of those in the crucial Blue Wall - seats which the Tories must hold to stand any chance of winning the election - showed that 54% back ECHR membership, with only 28% thinking the UK should quit.

This simply echoed a separate survey by YouGov last November which showed that 51% of the public want to stay in the ECHR, compared to 28% who want to leave.

As the clock ticks down to the next election - with most Westminster insiders believing that an autumn poll is all-but guaranteed - the prime minister is running out of ideas on how to turn around the Tories’ dire polling numbers.

He would be well advised, in the first instance, to put down his shovel and stop digging.


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