No "lurch to the right", says Cameron as the Tories do just that

Conservatives set to announce plans to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and restrict access to the NHS for immigrants.

"The battle for Britain’s future will not be won in lurching to the Right", declares David Cameron in response to his party's defeat to UKIP in the Eastleigh by-election. But across this morning's papers there's evey sign of the Tories doing just that. The Mail on Sunday reports that Theresa May will soon announce that a majority Conservative government would leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), while the Sunday Times details new plans to restrict access to the NHS for immigrants.

May's planned announcement represents a significant shift in Tory policy. Until now, the party's position has been that it will replace the Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights, something the presence of the Lib Dems has so far prevented. But since this would still allow UK citizens to petition the European Court of Human Rights, Tory MPs, including former justice minister Nick Herbert, have been arguing that the government should instead withdraw from the jurisdiction of the court and leave the ECHR altogether. It is this stance that May has now embraced. Tory discontent with the Strasbourg court has reached a new height since it prevented the deportation of Abu Qatada and forced the government to consider extending voting rights to some prisoners. As a result, as I predicted last year, a pledge to leave the ECHR is now expected to appear in the next Conservative manifesto.

One wonders if anyone has told Dominic Grieve. The Attorney General rightly warned that leaving the convention would make the UK a "pariah state", noting that only Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, does not currently subscribe to the ECHR. His likely opposition to the move, as well as that of Ken Clarke, raises the prospect of a cabinet split.

Another issue much discussed this morning is whether withdrawal from the ECHR would also require the UK to leave the EU. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the accession of the EU to the convention became a legal obligation. However, three years on from the ratification of the treaty, the EU has still not formally acceded to the ECHR. But the likelihood that it will eventually do so represents another obstacle to withdrawal.

The new plan to restrict access to the NHS for immigrants will see migrants forced to wait up to a year before being granted the right to non-emergency care. A Conservative source tells the Sunday Times: "The National Health Service is becoming the global health service. We are looking at the way in which services are open to people.

"You have to be ordinarily resident to access healthcare. We have to have a look at that and whether there is a prospect of changing that. We are looking in a bit more detail at the contributions you need to be entitled to free healthcare."

The government's increasingly hard line on migrant benefits prompts the question of how Labour will respond. Asked earlier this year whether he was willing to consider restricting benefits for EU immigrants, Ed Miliband said: "Of course that's an issue that should be looked at, the length of entitlement to benefits and how quickly can get them. All of these issues should be on the table." More recently, however, he has urged to government to end its "windy rhetoric" and concentrate on taking action against rogue employers that exploit cheap labour. With Miliband set to devote a party political broadcast to the subject this Wednesday and a speech (the Labour leader's third on immigration) expected to follow, he will soon come under pressure to offer greater clarity on Labour's position.

Home Secretary Theresa May makes a speech on immigration at Policy Exchange on December 12, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.