Rishi Sunak won the Tory leadership election last year partly on the basis he was a safe pair of hands, a moderate not beholden to any faction in the party. But there are some situations where judicious fence-sitting won’t work, and the issue of Rwanda – and how to sidestep the European Convention on Human Rights – is one of them.
The draft Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill published yesterday essentially prevents any legal challenge to the Government’s policy on the lines of last month’s Supreme Court decision. It disapplies the Human Rights Act in relation to that policy, though it does leave it open to individual deportees to argue that they will be personally disadvantaged over and above others by being sent there.
At the same time, however, Rishi has disavowed any intent to leave the ECHR entirely (which can be done on six months’ notice). And the central plank of the Government’s argument for why it cannot go further is that Rwanda won’t let us. Does anyone really believe this? How much would Rwanda care if we are in the Convention or not? It has been repeatedly suggested that Rwanda pull out of the deal if the Government doesn’t play its cards right. Yet there is little evidence to support this.
It is true that Tories with an eye to logic can see perfectly well that proper control of our borders is inconsistent with continued ECHR membership – witness Robert Jenrick’s principled resignation yesterday over the Bill not going far enough. But there remain a rump of older, supposedly one-nation, Tories like Bob Neill, Damian Green, Stephen Hammond and, it is said, Attorney-General Victoria Prentis, who are very fearful about rocking the human rights boat.
Unfortunately, Rishi has made the wrong call.
First, his decision involves kicking the can down the road. While the Bill rightly allows the Government to disobey interim orders from the European Court in Strasbourg, orders which on any normal reading of the ECHR are of doubtful authority anyway, it is now a racing certainty that we will see individual petitions to Strasbourg on substantive grounds, which the government cannot prevent and which are likely to succeed. And as and when they do succeed, the government will come back to the problem: will it defy the court, or fudge the issue again, with all the appearance of weakness?
Second, Rishi’s approach is incoherent. One cannot, consistently with membership of the ECHR, pass legislation which – as this Bill does – flatly contradicts it. Rishi is thus on a collision course with Strasbourg anyway. Those instinctively sceptical of the ECHR will see that the logical course is indeed to leave, and will not be impressed with Government choosing to be hanged for a lamb instead of a sheep.
Third, one suspects that Rishi has overestimated the downsides of announcing a willingness to pull out of the European human rights scheme lock, stock and barrel. It is frequently said that the UK is largely admired for its adherence to international human rights norms, and that if it stepped back from this commitment it would become a pariah nation like, say, Russia. This is hogwash. Three weeks ago France simply ignored a Strasbourg judgment telling it not to deport a Uzbek exile, and quietly put him on a plane to Tashkent anyway. Interestingly enough, there was little reaction from the bien-pensants, and little coverage, too. France has not become a pariah. Besides, there are any number of countries not members of any regional human rights conventions which are, shall we say, not regarded as hotbeds of fascism – think Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
What’s depressing is that Rishi could have played a blinder. There is a difference between saying that the UK should not leave the ECHR and not saying that it should necessarily stay in it. In promoting this Bill, he could have disarmed critics on both left and right by saying that it was merely a temporary expedient; that he did not currently want to leave the Convention; but that he would not rule out doing so if this became necessary in the future. This would have been a piece of balanced statesmanship.
What we have is an undignified fudge that will rile many, satisfy few and leave our Prime Minister with a reputation of a weak politician who refuses to make his mind up for fear of offending one group or another. That’s not a good way to woo the sceptical electors he has to face next year.