Sunak hints UK could leave ECHR if Rwanda plan blocked

Controlling immigration is more important than “membership of a foreign court”, the Prime Minister has said in his strongest hint yet that he could back leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In an interview on Wednesday, Rishi Sunak defended his approach to tackling small boats crossing the Channel, but indicated he would be willing to leave the ECHR if it blocked his Rwanda policy.

The Prime Minister told The Sun’s Never Mind The Ballots programme: “I believe that all plans are compliant with all of our international obligations including the ECHR, but I do believe that border security and making sure that we can control illegal migration is more important than membership of a foreign court because it’s fundamental to our sovereignty as a country.”

Right-wing Conservative MPs, including former home secretary Suella Braverman, have previously pushed for the UK to leave the ECHR, fearing its provisions could prevent asylum seekers being deported to Rwanda.

The Prime Minister has previously resisted such calls, but said he would be willing to defy orders from the European Court of Human Rights if necessary to implement his Rwanda plan.

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill currently making its way through Parliament includes provisions that would allow ministers to ignore such orders.

But members of the more moderate One Nation Group of Tory MPs have warned against leaving the convention, while others have said such a move would breach the Good Friday Agreement which includes a requirement to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Irish law.

Labour’s shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, said: “Rishi Sunak must think we’re stupid to tell us his plan on small boats is working when we’ve just seen record high Channel crossings over the Easter Bank holiday weekend.

“Arrivals on small boats are up this year and the Tories are floundering around trying to find anyone to blame but themselves. When will they take responsibility and admit they are failing on a staggering scale?

“This is just another desperate attempt by the Prime Minister to appease factions in his own party and stave off an attack from right-wing Tory MPs.

“Yet again the interests of the country come second.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael described the Prime Minister’s comments as “nothing more than an empty threat to try to keep his mutinous MPs on side”.

He said: “It doesn’t matter how many times Rishi Sunak tries, the Rwanda scheme will remain a colossal waste of time and taxpayers’ money.”

In his interview on Wednesday, Mr Sunak insisted that the Government had “plans in place” to implement the Rwanda policy as soon as the Bill was able to overcome opposition in the House of Lords, denying reports that there was no airline willing to take asylum seekers to the Central African nation.

He also defended his broader approach to small boats, saying he had done “more than any other prime minister in history” to tackle the problem.

After a fall in crossings last year, more than 5,000 people made the journey in the first three months of this year, exceeding the previous record set in 2022.

Mr Sunak said: “Progress is still being made. What are we doing with Albania? They accounted for a third of the arrivals we had the year before last.

“I negotiated a new deal with Albania. Obviously it’s a safe country. If somebody comes here illegally we’ll be able to return them back.

“We’ve then returned thousands of people back to Albania and what happened? They stopped coming. Now we need to replicate that.”