top of page

Justice secretary’s fight to protect the European Convention on Human Rights in Sunak’s Tory manifesto

Exclusive: Recording reveals justice secretary Alex Chalk’s bid to stop the Tories ditching the European Convention on Human Rights

By David Maddox

Political editor

June 12, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

A series of secret tapes have exposed the depth of the Tory civil war over the prospect of ditching the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Rishi Sunak is expected to confirm in his manifesto today that he will leave the door open to leaving or trying to reform the ECHR, which was inspired by Winston Churchill after the Second World War, by vowing to put border protection ahead of the edicts of foreign courts.

But a recording of justice secretary Alex Chalk speaking to Tory members at the Two Cities Conservatives reception on 20 February reveals he was opposed to the move.

Mr Chalk, who is also the lord chancellor and a lawyer, was defending the government’s Rwanda bill, designed to enable deportations to the African country, and made the case that the ECHR did not need amending.

The proposal to ditch the ECHR is being championed by Nigel Farage’s Reform party, which is splitting the right-wing vote in British politics. But it has also become the cause of a number of Tory MPs on the right, led by former home secretary Suella Braverman and former immigration minister Robert Jenrick.

Mr Chalk told the audience that leaving the ECHR could lead to a “situation where we smashed up international law”.

He pointed to the UK as having “the second-largest legal sector in the world” and suggested that leaving the ECHR would amount to a “leap of senses” where “you’ve ripped everything up”.

This, he claimed, could cause a “whole lot of damage”, and that companies would be less inclined “to invest in our country”.

He said that “to protect our borders, the trick is to produce a bill which [...] presses ourselves up against the window pane of international law, but which doesn’t ultimately breach it”.

Mr Chalk is part of the One Nation group on the left of the party, which supports maintaining Britain’s alignment with international law.

A source close to Mr Chalk pointed out that he had previously supported reform of the ECHR. In May he told other G7 justice ministers that the convention needed to be “up to date” and that there was a danger of it being “held in contempt” by populations.

In another intervention, Mark Warman, who is deputy chair of the One Nation group and is facing a challenge from Reform’s Richard Tice in his Boston and Skegness constituency, attacked those who want to leave the ECHR.

Asked about leaving the ECHR at an event at Kings College London on 15 February, he said: “I’d be uncomfortable, because I think it wouldn’t be a vote-winning opportunity.”

But he added: “I think, and I’ve said [this] publicly ... I think the ECHR needs some really fundamental reform. And I think the refugee convention needs some really fundamental reform. There’s half a dozen of the big treaties ... named explicitly, and no one thinks any of them is perfect.”

However, he noted: “While there are, of course, significant amounts of people who would say it is immigration and the ECHR that is the crucial issue for the next election, I think the reality is, and the polling says, that it is the economy, it is the NHS, it is public services. And so wedge issues are important, they demonstrate whose side you’re on, but they can’t be the main debate.”

But recordings from an event that took place in March showed that leaving the ECHR was part of a plot by right-wing Tories to reshape the Conservative Party after Mr Sunak’s leadership ends. The two-day event was organised by the Margaret Thatcher Centre and took place at the University of Buckingham. It was funded by Donald Trump super-donor Robert Mercer.

Attendees included Mr Sunak’s current science minister, Andrew Griffith, as well as two former ministers from the Liz Truss and Boris Johnson governments, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Conor Burns.

Other MPs present included Greg Smith and Andrew Rosindell, and the event heard a keynote speech from the former Brexit minister David Frost.

Sir Jacob proposed a number of policy interventions that the Conservative Party could make. Among them were scrapping the Climate Change Act to restore “liberty”, and exiting the ECHR – an increasingly popular threat from the right of the party.

In his remarks, he said: “Liz Truss, I thought, had so many good ideas that we wanted to get pushed through.”

He proposed scrapping the Equality Act – even as he acknowledged that he was “not particularly diverse” – and said this could be done via a statutory instrument without the need for a parliamentary vote. Sir Jacob suggested that public sector groups could be “reclassified” to remove them from equality legislation.

Mr Griffith, who is currently the minister for science, innovation and technology, proposed a deregulated financial sector that would be “pro-risk taking”, with tax incentives and a “lower rate of tax” that recognised the “societal benefit” of private capital.

Mr Smith attacked the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) for “giving credence” to the idea that Ms Truss’s tax cuts were unfunded.

He said: “[The OBR] gives credence to the nonsense that there is such a thing as an unfunded tax cut. As if all tax cuts are automatically a loss to the Treasury.”

Mr Burns attacked MPs on the left of his party, including Tobias Ellwood and Caroline Noakes, and said he believed many true conservatives were no longer Tories.

He said: “There are many people I regard as true conservatives who are now outside the Conservative Party. And there are many that I do not regard as conservatives, now prominent within the Conservative Party”.

Mr Burns bemoaned the defection of Tories such as right-winger Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, to Reform UK, and implored attendees that “we must move beyond this sort of Noakesian, Elwoodian politics that seeks to find the plaudits of those who will never vote for us at all”.

He added: “Those of my colleagues who look to people who want to say of them: ‘Well, I don’t like those Tories but that one isn’t too bad” – my friends, that does not make an electoral coalition, let alone a sound majority in the House of Commons.”


bottom of page