‘All options on the table’: Downing Street confirms Boris Johnson considering withdrawal from human rights treaty

All European states except Russia and Belarus are signatories to the convention drawn up after the Second World War

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 15 June 2022 15:20 BST
Boris Johnson claims ECHR 'one of the great things' UK gave to Europe in resurfaced video

Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson has confirmed the government is considering withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, saying “all options are on the table” in the wake of last night’s cancellation of a deportation flight to Rwanda.

The prime minister is facing fury from Tory backbenchers over the last-minute ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which blocked last night’s flight, with many calling for the UK to pull out of the convention which it helped draw up in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Mr Johnson yesterday hinted he was ready to consider withdrawal, saying it “may very well” be necessary to change some rules to allow future deportations to go ahead unhindered.

And his spokesperson today confirmed that this could include action on the ECHR.

Asked whether withdrawal from the convention was being considered, the spokesperson told reporters: “We keep all options on the table as part of our work to address the issues raised by the repeated and sometimes meritless claims that we see consistently with removal flights, while obviously making sure that we continue to protect the vulnerable.”

He added: “We will do whatever it takes to deliver this new approach, including being prepared to explore any and all further legal reforms which may be necessary.”

All European states are signatories to the convention with the exception of Belarus, whose application to join the Council of Europe has been blocked because of its failure to meet democratic standards, and Russia, which pulled out in the wake of this year’s invasion of Ukraine.

Withdrawal would put at risk the Good Friday Agreement, which states that the UK government will ensure that the Convention is directly enforceable in Northern Ireland.

Senior Labour MP Chris Bryant said: “If we leave the ECHR we will be required to leave the Council of Europe. The only similar pariah state is the Russian Federation. The government is wilfully trashing our international reputation by repeated deliberate law-breaking.”

And Labour frontbencher Imran Hussein said: “The ECHR was part-founded by Churchill’s Tories and is key to the Good Friday Agreement but it blocked their racism extravaganza so now the Tories want to ditch it. The only other country that’s done this is Russia!”

The PM’s spokesperson made explictly clear that ECHR withdrawal was among the options under consideration, saying: “What we are doing is considering the judgement before coming to a decision on how best to proceed.

“Now that will both look at the role of the ECHR but also existing UK legislation and whether it is functioning as envisaged.”

Attorney general Suella Braverman later echoed his comments, telling BBC Radio 4’s World at One: ”The government has been clear... that all options are on the table. So we’re not ruling anything in and we’re not ruling anything out.

“We are definitely open to assessing all options available as to what our relationship should be going forward with the (ECHR).”

The comments came just hours after senior government ministers said that they did not believe that membership of the human rights convention was up for question.

Cabinet minister Therese Coffey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think that’s even a question that I’m aware that’s on the table at all... I’m not aware of any decisions or hints of leaving the ECHR.”

Another minister in Ms Coffey’s department for work and pensions, Guy Opperman, also told Times Radio: “I don’t believe it is our policy, nor would it be something I will be advocating for, withdrawing from the ECHR.”

He added: “This is not necessarily a final prevention that has taken place last night. This is a temporary delay whilst matters are considered in more detail by the UK courts.

“And I think that is the thrust of it, that the ECHR has basically said that there needs to be more time to consider the applications involved and that the UK courts should do that.”

But other members of the Johnson administration were openly calling for the UK to remove itself from the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg court.

These included Jonathan Gullis, a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) at the Northern Ireland Office, who posted on Facebook: “The ECHR has no place in the UK judicial system. The government needs to free itself from it entirely.” Shortly afterwards, the Stoke North MP amended his message to read: “The ECHR’s role in UK law needs looking at urgently.”

Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “You might think that the PPS to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have some clue that withdrawing from the ECHR would breach the Good Friday Agreement. This is just embarrassing from someone on the government payroll.”

Mr Johnson himself said while campaigning for Brexit in 2016 that he was a supporter of the ECHR, which he said was “one of the great things” which the UK had given to Europe.

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