“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.