Euan McColm: Tories not taking problem of anti-semitism any more seriously than Labour

Leniency shown to MP who hobnobbed with anti-Semites undercuts Johnson’s one nation pretensions, writes Euan McColm.

Daniel Kawczynski's appearance at the conference in Italy was attacked by the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl. Picture: Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament
Daniel Kawczynski's appearance at the conference in Italy was attacked by the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl. Picture: Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament

His defence had a ring of familiarity about it.
Challenged over his decision to appear at a conference in Italy alongside far-right political figures, Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski explained that it was “only common sense” to talk with politicians who were either leading their countries or might take power in the years to come.

It was an argument that brought to mind the defence of Labour bag carriers of leader Jeremy Corbyn’s associations with Irish republican extremists. They, too, spoke of the need for politicians to reach out to others. Corbyn – whose sympathies for the mission of the IRA have been well chronicled – could justify palling about with people who supported murderous bombing campaigns because he was doing so in his capacity as a statesman.

But Corbyn is no statesman. And nor is Kawczynski, whose explanation for his appearance on the same platform as the far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the Italian nationalist Matteo Salvini did not impress the Tory great and good.

Kawczynski – a backbencher – was last week reprimanded by his party, given a formal warning over his attendance at the Italian conference which, he was told, was not acceptable.

The Conservative Party has exerted a great deal of energy in launching legitimate attacks on the Labour leader’s associations with anti-Semites. We’ve heard demands for Labour resignations, dismissals and disciplinary hearings from righteously indignant Tories.

But if you’re a Tory MP and you hang about with and lend credibility to anti-Semites and racists, it seems a slap on the wrist is sufficient to remind you that better is expected.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed, by failing to ensure proper action against Kawczynski, an opportunity to keep the right of his party in line. He may have depended on the wing-nuts on his party’s nationalist right for the support required to become PM, but now Johnson should show them no love at all.

Even when he had thrown his lot in with the Tory Party’s Eurosceptic right wing, Johnson let it be known that he wished to lead as a moderate, one nation Conservative. The Prime Minister’s spinners painted a picture of a politician whose instincts were to tack to the centre. Once Brexit was done (whatever that means), Johnson would find a path through the middle of the road.

Kawczynski has never made the slightest pretence that he’s anything but an unreconstructed right winger. Born in Poland and then raised in the UK from the age of six, he has grown to become the archetypal Little Englander, an insular nationalist.

Perhaps you recall when, during Johnson’s failed attempts to get his Brexit deal though the House of Commons last year, Kawczynski boasted that he had asked the Polish government to veto any request from the UK to the EU for a further delay to Brexit.

This – a shameless attempt to have a foreign power interfere in the UK’s domestic politics – marked him out as the sort of obsessive who has dragged the Tory Party and much of the UK to the populist right.

Kawczynski and his fellow travellers in the Conservative Party are entitled to feel emboldened by recent events. They are, after all, on the side currently winning a culture war between insular, protectionist nationalism and the desire to reach out and collaborate with others across Europe.

But Johnson, say chums of the Prime Minister, is not forged in the same mould as his most vehemently Eurosceptic MPs. If this is truly so, then the PM has nothing to gain from indulging the worst excesses of members of that faction.

Last week, one Johnson-supporting Tory MP told me that Johnson wants to be loved by everyone but that his tragedy is that he wants to be loved most by those who now feel contempt for him.

“It suited Boris to stand with the party’s right when he was pitching to become leader,” he said, “but he would rather be seen as a moderate than as the champion of people who think hanging about conferences with anti-Semites and other bigots is a good idea.”

The past few years have been especially difficult for British Jews. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party attracted the support of a substantial number of cranks whose worldview is horribly distorted by their belief in conspiracies in which “Zionists” control our media and politics.

Corbyn’s repeated failure to recognise the extent of the problems ended up not just costing the party votes, it damaged its reputation to such a degree that previously loyal voters couldn’t bring themselves to back the party they’d supported, in some instances, for decades.

Tory words of succour to Jewish voters are gravely undermined by the failure of the Prime Minister to make an example of Kawczynski.

Why should anyone believe the Conservative Party is more welcoming than Labour to Jews when its MPs may share platforms with anti-Semites without risking more than a rap on the knuckles?

The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, makes the point that Kawczynski’s defence – that it makes sense to speak with parties and politicians in power – is a specious one. After all, she reminds us, the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham is not any sort of Government representative.

The Tories were perfectly happy to listen to the Board of Deputies when that body was attacking Corbyn’s Labour Party.

And Johnson was more than happy to accept the endorsement of the Board when, after he became Prime Minister last year, it described its long and positive relationship with him.

Having been so badly let down by Labour, British Jews deserve better from the Conservative Party.

Marie van der Zyl says failure by the Tories to discipline Kawczynski creates the risk that the party shares his views on associating with such people as Orban and Salvini.

I’m bound to say that all of us, Jewish or not, are entitled to think that the party’s pitifully weak response to Daniel Kawczynski’s provocation means it doesn’t take the problem of anti-Semitism any more seriously than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour did.