(Bloomberg) -- Members of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party demanded the UK withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights after a court ruling forced the Home Office to cancel its first deportation flight to Rwanda at the eleventh hour.
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With the plane sitting on the tarmac, judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg -- which enforces the convention -- halted the deportation of one of the men due for deportation. That triggered a series of legal challenges leading to the remaining handful of deportees to be withdrawn from the flight.
The move prompted fury among Tory MPs, some of whom demanded Johnson leave the ECHR. In a series of WhatsApp exchanges Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith called the issue “war” with the ECHR. His colleague Alexander Stafford called it a “disaster.” Their comments were verified by a member of their WhatsApp group. Tory MP Andrew Murrison told Parliament on Wednesday “the court stands a very real risk of losing the confidence of the British people as it seeks to undermine our domestic legal structures.”
The rulings are the latest setback for Johnson’s flagship immigration policy, which involves sending to Rwanda migrants it regards as having arrived illegally in Britain. Yet there is also a sense that the government, which said in May the Rwanda plan would take months to proceed due to legal challenges, is not unhappy about how the flight cancellation has been covered in the media, seeing the policy as a “wedge” issue with the opposition Labour Party.
Facing Home Secretary Priti Patel in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Labour’s home affairs spokeswoman Yvette Cooper called the policy a “shambles” that was only in the “political interest” of the Tory Party.
“It’s not serious policy; it’s shameless posturing,” Cooper said. “It’s not building consensus. It’s just pursuing division.”
The UK government argues that sending migrants to Rwanda will halt the flow of people arriving in small boats organized by people smugglers, often in treacherous conditions and with sometimes tragic consequences.
But the plan had drawn sharp criticism from religious leaders including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and from Prince Charles, the heir to the throne. Even before Tuesday evening, challenges by refugee charities in the courts had already reduced those scheduled to fly to a handful from more than 100.
“We will not accept that we have no right to control our borders,” Home Secretary Priti Patel told Parliament Wednesday, vowing to push on with the policy.
The ECHR said the man due for deportation “should not be removed to Rwanda until three weeks” after domestic judicial review proceedings had concluded. It said it was granting the request on an “exceptional basis” because of “a real risk of irreversible harm.”
Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters in London the UK expects to send the next flight before July because the ECHR injunctions are against the individual deportees involved, not the policy itself. The Rwandan government also indicated it intends to stick with the policy.
“We are not deterred by these developments,” Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said, adding that the African nation remains “fully committed” to making the UK partnership work. “Rwanda stands ready to receive the migrants when they do arrive and offer them safety and opportunity in our country.”
In the UK the issue of immigration is frequently tied up with the debate about Brexit. But the court that ruled on Tuesday is part of the Council of Europe -- of which the UK is a member -- rather than the European Union, which it left. The UK played a role in drafting the convention after World War II, and it was enshrined in British law in the 1998 Human Rights Act.
Tory MP Desmond Swayne asked Patel on Wednesday “we are going to have to grasp the nettle and extend the principle of taking back control to the convention, aren’t we?”
Changing The Law
Patel said the court’s decision was “disappointing and surprising” but “we remain committed to this policy.” She said the decision by “an out-of-hours judge” was “opaque.”
Asked before the late rulings if it’s time for the UK to come out of the convention, Johnson told broadcasters on Tuesday: “Will it be necessary to change some laws to help us as we go along? It may very well be, and all these options are under constant review.”
Yet doing so would be a radical step. The UK can’t leave the convention and remain in the Council of Europe, of which it is a founding member. Johnson can ask to leave the council, as Russia did in March just before it was due to be expelled, but that would significantly damage the country’s reputation.
Northern Ireland Risk
Complicating matters further, the convention is woven into the Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal for Northern Ireland. Protecting that is Johnson’s justification for threatening to rip up the Brexit divorce deal he signed with the EU governing trade in the region.
Johnson would also face opposition from some of his Tory MPs. Pensions minister Guy Opperman said he didn’t advocate the UK leaving the convention.
“As I understand it, the UK courts have primacy on this matter,” he told Times Radio. “But as I understand the decision last night from the ECHR, a decision was made that not everything had been considered by the UK courts in those circumstances. This is a temporary delay.”
(Updates with comments from Patel, Cooper, Tory MPs starting in third paragraph.)
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