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.

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted around 5,000) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.