New Times,
New Thinking.

Boris Johnson’s government may never have intended the Rwanda flight to take off

As a source close to government thinking put it: “The point of the exercise was to create dividing lines ahead of the next election.”

By Harry Lambert

A government plane carrying seven asylum seekers has been prevented from flying to Rwanda after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) granted appellants on board a temporary reprieve. “Euro court grounds jet to Rwanda,” as the Mail puts it in an unusually subdued headline. The Mirror is ashamed (“What a cruel farce”) while the Independent focuses on the ineffectiveness of the policy as a deterrent (“Hundreds cross channel despite Rwanda threat”).

The Guardian think that last night’s “European ruling throws Rwanda plan into chaos”, but I am not so sure. As a source close to government thinking put it to me: “They never expected the flight to take off. The point of the exercise was to create dividing lines ahead of the next election, which is going to be fought, in part, on a manifesto pledge to leave the European Court of Human Rights and repeal the Human Rights Act.”

If this is chaos, in other words, it may be chaos by design. Boris Johnson himself appeared to anticipate the ruling on 14 June. Asked whether he wanted the government to withdraw from the ECHR, he told ITV: “Will it be necessary to change some laws to help us as we go along? It may very well be.” (Some ministers then poured cold water on his suggestion the following morning, but it is unclear if they speak for the government.)

And if this sounds familiar, it is because the Tories have been making such pledges, with varying enthusiasm, for a decade. The 2015 manifesto (under Cameron) promised to “scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights”. As Theresa May, then Cameron’s home secretary, put it in 2013: “If leaving the European convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do.” But by the 2017 manifesto (under May), that commitment had been dialled back to: “We will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway.” And in 2019 (under Johnson) the manifesto simply stated: “We will update the Human Rights Act.”

Johnson now sees a fight with the ECHR as one of the few political battles he has a chance of winning in the near future: many voters want control over Britain’s borders to be exercised by elected politicians in Britain, not by unelected judges in a European court (the UK is a signatory to the ECHR as a member of the Council of Europe; the court is unconnected to the European Union). Johnson welcomes a fight over the issue. His team thinks that those who are alienated by the policy were never going to vote for him anyway, or will eventually do so because they always vote Conservative, as many pro-EU Tories did in 2019 despite Johnson.

No 10 is searching for political ground on which it can win, a week after Johnson only narrowly survived a confidence ballot; the 1922 Committee chair Graham Brady has reflected on that vote in the New Statesman Diary.

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You can also find an interview with Hillary Clinton in this week’s issue. With Democrats heading for a major defeat in the midterms and the US possibly heading for a great crisis, I trailed Clinton for the evening in South Shields ten days ago. We went back and forth over Trump, the press and whether hope can beat fear. Johnson himself, having dashed the hopes of many, is now looking to exploit fears perennially felt in parts of Britain – of asylum and European rule. As a piper almost out of tunes, he is returning to old hits.

[See also: How can Britain celebrate Magna Carta and leave the ECHR in the same year?]

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