The shadow justice secretary, Charles Falconer, said he was appalled by the home secretary’s comments, which he described as “so ignorant, so illiberal, so misguided”, while the Tory MP and former attorney general Dominic Grieve said he was disappointed by the intervention.
May used a speech in central London to argue that it was the convention, rather than the EU, that had caused the extradition of extremist Abu Hamza to be delayed for years and that had almost stopped the deportation of Abu Qatada.
“The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights,” she said.
“So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.”
The home secretary, who is seen as a potential future Tory leader, used the speech to express support for membership of the EU, but also to reach out to the Eurosceptic wing of the party.
But her comments place her on a collision course with cabinet colleagues, including the justice secretary, Michael Gove, who has put forward plans for a British bill of rights based on Britain staying inside the convention.
Downing Street conceded that the comments did highlight “differences” between May and David Cameron, although it warned against overstating them.
“The PM has made clear he wants to see reform of the ECHR and has ruled absolutely nothing out if we don’t achieve that,” his official spokeswoman said. But sources admitted that the government’s position did not currently require withdrawal from the ECHR.
Labour’s Falconer accused May of “sacrificing Britain’s 68-year-old commitment to human rights for her own miserable Tory leadership ambitions”.
“That is so ignorant, so illiberal, so misguided,” he said. “Ignorant because you have to be a member of the ECHR to be a member of the EU. The European Union itself agrees to abide by the ECHR. Illiberal because … there has to be a source external to a government determining what human rights are.
“And misguided because it will so damage the standing of the UK, a country that above all plays by the rules and that is going around the world saying we should comply as a world with human rights. This is so, so appalling.”
But it was not only Labour that reacted negatively to May’s speech. Grieve said he was “disappointed because it shows a lack of understanding of the positive impact the ECHR is for the EU”.
He accused May of underestimating the positive impact that the Abu Qatada case had on the Jordanian justice system and pointed out that both he and Abu Hamza were removed.
He said he was pleased that May was backing the EU, but warned: “Pulling out of the ECHR would be damaging to Britain’s international standing. It is a central pillar of foreign policy.”
May used the rest of her speech to attempt to strike a balanced and “optimistic” tone in favour of EU membership, with comments that will be interpreted as swipes at the prime minister, including a claim that the UK had forgotten how to lead in Europe.
The home secretary denied that the UK was too small to thrive alone, saying: “I do not want to stand here and insult people’s intelligence by claiming that everything about the EU is perfect, that membership of the EU is wholly good, nor do I believe those that say the sky will fall in if we vote to leave.”
May appeared to concede that immigration from within the EU could not be controlled as long as Britain was a member, but she insisted that there was no “single bullet” to fix the immigration problem. She took a harder line than the government on the issue of new countries joining the EU, including Albania, Serbia and Turkey – in comments seized on by Vote Leave.
“We have to ask ourselves, is it really right that the EU should just continue to expand, conferring upon all new member states all the rights of membership?” said May, who also argued that leaving the EU could stop the development of the single market, lose investors, push Britain backwards on international trade and threaten the UK.
“I do not want the European Union to cause the destruction of an older and much more precious union, the union between England and Scotland,” she said.
May argued that no country had ever been totally sovereign and added that international institutions always required compromises.
David Davis, the Conservative former shadow home secretary, said it
was “extraordinarily inconsistent” to want to withdraw from the ECHR
and stay within the EU.
“She seems not to have understood the power and forcefulness of the European court of justice,” he said. “If we pulled out of the ECHR, for which we would get much opprobrium, and stay in the EU, all that would happen is the the European court of justice will do exactly what the ECHR did before but with more force, because the charter of fundamental rights is the European convention plus, not
minus. Logically, it does not stand up.”
He said it would be better to leave the EU and stick with the European Convention on Human Rights.
“The ECHR did have an expansionist phase and that broadly came to an end after parliament’s decision on prisoner votes. Staying within the convention is sensible, having a British Bill of Rights is sensible, but staying within the EU you get all that and more,” he said.
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