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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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