Home Featured 5 times Tory prime ministers talked up quitting the ECHR — and then didn’t – POLITICO
5 times Tory prime ministers talked up quitting the ECHR — and then didn’t – POLITICO

5 times Tory prime ministers talked up quitting the ECHR — and then didn’t – POLITICO

by host

LONDON — Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and U.K. Tory leaders flirting with leaving the European Convention on Human Rights.

U.K. membership of the ECHR is back in the headlines this week after Rishi Sunak’s government unveiled a new asylum bill it acknowledged may clash with a convention which Britain itself helped to draft in 1951.

Tory MPs and commentators from a certain wing of the party are already agitating for Britain to pull out if the asylum plan comes a cropper in the Strasbourg courts. Sunak’s position is somewhat nuanced. “We don’t believe it is necessary to leave the ECHR,” he insisted at a press conference Tuesday evening, vowing to reform the convention instead.

So where on earth might they have gotten that idea? Let POLITICO run you through all the times in recent years that Conservative leaders talked up quitting the ECHR — without ever doing anything about it.

David Cameron


David Cameron showed more than a bit of ankle back in 2015 over planned changes to Britain’s human rights laws.

Asked in the House of Commons whether the U.K. might pull out of the ECHR, should it face opposition to its bid to scrap the Labour-era Human Rights Act, Cameron said he would “rule out absolutely nothing in getting that done.” He noted: “We are very clear about what we want, which is British judges making decisions in British courts.”

It turned out Cameron was right to keep that “absolutely nothing” on the table. His pro-Remain administration was killed off — along with his own political career — by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union 12 months later.

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Theresa May


Cameron’s successor Theresa May wasn’t a massive ECHR fan either, frustrated by Strasbourg rulings during her years as U.K. home secretary.

Ahead of the Brexit referendum, she delivered a speech urging people not to vote to leave the EU, but to instead train their fire on the ECHR, which she argued could “bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals — and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights.” (“But apart from that, it’s great!” she didn’t add.)

The message was repeated as May campaigned successfully to become party leader, with Tory bible the Daily Telegraph reporting that she was planning to run a 2020 election campaign on a platform of pulling out.

Instead, May gambled on an impromptu 2017 election, lost her parliamentary majority, and then got bogged down in endless Brexit talks. Fears about scuppering an EU security deal eventually put paid to the whole idea, with her government stressing in its 2018 Brexit white paper that it remained “committed” to the ECHR. Funny how things turn out.

WPA pool photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Getty Images

Boris Johnson


After May’s departure, it was down to the ever-consistent Boris Johnson to try and crack this particular Tory nut.

Johnson — who had previously described the ECHR as “one of the great things we gave to Europe” — happily leant into talk of withdrawal after Strasbourg intervened in a controversial attempt by the U.K. to deport refugees to Rwanda.

Under Tory pressure over that scuppered plan, Johnson mused aloud on the ECHR: “Will it be necessary to change some laws to help us as we go along? It may very well be, and all these options are under constant review.”

Pressed on whether that included withdrawing from the ECHR, Johnson’s spokesperson revived the familiar Tory PM’s catchphrase: “All options are on the table.”

Johnson’s veiled threats never got any further, not least because virtually his entire Cabinet resigned a few weeks later, forcing him from office. Onward!

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Liz Truss


To be fair to Liz Truss, there’s not loads you can do with just 49 days in office — but in an alternate universe she is out there somewhere briefing the papers that her government might jolly well leave the ECHR any day now, honest.

During the 2022 leadership contest, Truss made clear she was “prepared” to pull the U.K. out of the convention. It came after her leadership rival (and now home secretary) Suella Braverman took the all-out approach of demanding the U.K. quit, accusing the Strasbourg court of “thwarting our democracy.” One to remember if Braverman ever gets her own turn as prime minister.

Photo by Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Rishi Sunak


Another week, another Conservative leader.

This one has arguably been a bit more nuanced on the ECHR in public, although “a source familiar with Sunak’s thinking” told the Sunday Times last month that he’d be up for storming out if pushed. “Sunak’s threat to pull U.K. out of the ECHR,” the front page story screamed.

Trailing the asylum proposals that were made public this week, the same person told the paper that if the new U.K. law was passed “and is found to be lawful by our domestic courts, but it is still being held up in Strasbourg,” then Sunak will of course “be willing to reconsider whether being part of the ECHR is in the U.K.’s long-term interests.” Tory MPs took his word for it Tuesday, as they urged the government to get a move on. “Unless we can somehow face them down, we will remain tied up in legal knots in our own domestic courts and ultimately, in Strasbourg,” warned backbencher Mark Francois.

Suddenly, Sunak was sounding less keen on the idea, with his official spokesperson telling journos: “It still remains the case that we believe we can bring in tough new legislation that remains within [the] ECHR.”

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

POLITICO is sure that’s the end of the matter … Watch this space.

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