David Cameron has vowed there will be no “lurch to the right” by the Conservatives in the wake of the party’s poor performance in the Eastleigh by-election.
The prime minister insisted he would “stick to the course we are on” despite seeing the Tories beaten into third place behind the UK Independence Party (Ukip).
Nevertheless, in an apparent move to appeal to voters who abandoned the Conservatives for Ukip, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling indicated the Tories would abolish the Human Rights Act – which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights in British law – if they won the next general election.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Cameron said he fully understood the concerns of voters impatient for change after what he said were years of decline under the former Labour government.
“I know who these people are. They are people who feel that Britain, this great country we love, was going downhill for years under Labour and is not being fixed fast enough by the government I lead,” he wrote.
“If they were concerned about welfare, they were accused of not caring. If they were worried about out-of-control immigration, they were called racist. If they wanted to talk about Britain being great again, they were made to feel nostalgic and old-fashioned.
“These people – hard-working, decent, patriotic people – are who the Conservative party has always been for. We are on the side of those who want to work hard and get on in life.
“But the battle for Britain’s future will not be won in lurching to the right, nor by some cynical attempt to calculate the middle distance between your political opponents and then planting yourself somewhere between them.
“That is lowest common denominator politics – and it gets you nowhere. The right thing to do is to address the things people care about; to fix yourself firmly in what Keith Joseph (Margaret Thatcher’s ideological mentor) called the ‘common ground’ of politics. And that’s what we have done.
“It’s not about being left-wing or right-wing – it’s about being where the British people are. And where the British people rightly are on all these issues is where the Conservative party is, too.”
Mr Grayling, meanwhile, threatened to exacerbate tensions within the coalition by indicating that a majority Conservative government would repeal the Human Rights Act which the Liberal Democrats are committed to defending.
“I cannot conceive of a situation where we could put forward a serious reform without scrapping Labour’s Human Rights Act and starting again,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.
“We cannot go on with a situation where people who are a threat to our national security, or who come to Britain and commit serious crimes, are able to cite their human rights when they are clearly wholly unconcerned for the human rights of others.
“We need a dramatically curtailed role for the European Court of Human Rights in the UK.”
The move will be welcomed by Tory MPs frustrated by a series of controversial rulings by the Strasbourg-based court, including blocking the deportation of the radical cleric Abu Qatada and ruling that prisoners must be given the vote.
Labour accused Mr Cameron of “caving in” to the Tory right over the Human Rights Act.
“It’s clear David Cameron’s response to his disastrous result in Eastleigh is a big lurch to the right,” a spokesman said.
“He is a weak prime minister who is caving in to the demands of the right wing MPs in his party.”