May had called on Monday for the UK to leave the ECHR regardless of the outcome of the EU referendum, but ministers told the House of Commons on Tuesday that the government had no intention of doing that.
May’s comments put her at odds with David Cameron and Michael Gove, the justice secretary, who is campaigning for the UK to leave the EU but wants to keep the European convention on human rights.
Dominic Raab, a junior justice minister, said: “On the ECHR the government’s position remains clear. We cannot rule out withdrawal forever, but our forthcoming proposals do not include withdrawal from the convention, not least because of the clear advice we have received that if we withdrew from the ECHR while remaining an EU member it would be an open invitation to the Luxembourg court to fill the gap, which could have far worse consequences, and because the convention is written into the Good Friday agreement.
“We are confident that we can replace the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights and reform our relationship with the Strasbourg court. That is precisely what we intend to do.”
The home secretary was called to parliament to explain her apparent breach of cabinet collective responsibility, after the Lib Dems tabled an urgent question. But her place was taken at the dispatch box by Jeremy Wright, the attorney general, who said there was a risk of “making a little too much of what happened yesterday”.
In an apparent attempt to minimise the cabinet split, he denied there was confusion and stressed that the prime minister had been clear that the government “rules nothing out”.
May’s failure to appear was criticised by the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the SNP. Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem former cabinet minister who tabled the question, said of May: “Yesterday she went rogue, today she went missing.”
Joanna Cherry, the SNP spokeswoman covering human rights, said withdrawing from the convention could cause a “constitutional crisis within these islands”.
Crispin Blunt, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, said May’s suggestion was an example of the “unholy muddle when we contract out our policy to the tabloid leader writers” and called for Britain to show its full commitment to the convention.
Following the speech, May was accused by Labour’s Lord Falconer, the shadow justice secretary, of “sacrificing Britain’s 68-year-old commitment to human rights for her own miserable Tory leadership ambitions”.
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 by criticising the ECHR.
Downing Street conceded on Monday that the comments did highlight differences between May and 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 require withdrawal from the ECHR.
In the speech, May had said: “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.”
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th April 2016 15.18 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010