Sunak May Harden Stance on Human Rights Pact After Farage Jumps Into Race

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak is considering hardening his Conservative Party’s position on the European Convention on Human Rights, as disastrous polling and Brexit architect Nigel Farage’s decision to stand for Reform UK in the general election leave the premier’s ruling party facing a potential wipe out.

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Senior Tory party officials have sounded out ministers on the more moderate wing of the party over whether they could support a tougher stance on Britain’s membership of the human rights pact, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing policy that’s not finalized.

The ECHR is blamed by right-wingers in the Conservative Party for preventing a harsher crackdown on asylum-seekers arriving in the UK. In that respect, the pact has emerged as the latest bugbear of Brexiteers disappointed that leaving the European Union has not resulted in a drop in net migration.

But there is disagreement among cabinet ministers over how hard to go. Some Conservative advisers are calling for Sunak to commit to working with European partners to reform the convention, or failing that, leave it. Other Tories have previously called for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the ECHR.

Many on the moderate side of the party — including several Cabinet ministers — oppose leaving the body.

The Conservatives are searching for game-changing policies after they failed to shrink the wide poll lead enjoyed by Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party’s in the first 12 days of the campaign. YouGov modeling on Monday showed Labour heading for a 194-seat majority in the House of Commons, with the Tories losing more than 200 seats.

Many Conservatives are worried about the threat posed on the right by Reform, and Farage’s announcement on Monday that he’ll take over that party’s leadership as well as standing for election in the seat of Clacton on the east coast of England will bring those concerns into sharper focus. The Farage angle makes Sunak’s decision on the ECHR more salient.

The Tories had already been live to the threat posed by Reform, rolling out policy pledges seemingly designed to appeal to right-wing voters who might be tempted by the insurgent party. They include promising to bring back national service for teenagers, a tax guarantee for pensioners and a plan to rewrite the Equality Act to change the definition of “sex” to “biological sex.”

Right-wingers have blamed the ECHR for the UK government’s failure to stop small boats carrying migrants across the English Channel, and some have tried to paint it as a bogeyman for various problems in British politics, in an echo of tactics used by the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union. Outgoing Reform leader Ricard Tice on Monday said this year’s vote “is and must be the immigration election.”

Sunak himself has suggested he’d be willing to leave the ECHR, claiming that enacting his flagship migration policy to deport migrants to Rwanda was “more important” than being a party to the convention. That’s despite the deportation flights to Rwanda being blocked by the British courts.

The Tories are also involved in a row with civil servants over plans to announce more migrant returns agreements with other countries during the election campaign, the people familiar with the matter said. The civil service in Britain is bound by impartiality and rules that prevent it from becoming involved in political matters, especially during election campaigns.

A move to the right on the ECHR would fit with the Tory campaign strategy of going after their core vote of older people, 2019 Conservative voters, and those considering backing the right-wing Reform Party. A Tory aide said Farage’s return was a disaster for the party, fearing it made it harder for Sunak to win votes back from Reform.

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