Hancock: Corbyn as PM would be 'west's first antisemitic leader since WWII'

Health secretary Matt Hancock warns Tory MPs of risks of not choosing right leader

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has claimed that if Jeremy Corbyn won a general election he would be “the first antisemitic leader of a western nation since the second world war”.

Speaking at a private hustings event in Westminster for the Tory leadership, Hancock sought to portray himself as the best candidate to appeal to younger voters and win a general election.

According to a supporter in the room on Wednesday night, he warned colleagues: “The Conservative party has to get this right. If we don’t, we could end up with the first antisemitic leader of a western nation since the second world war.”

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said the remarks were “a disgrace”.

A Labour source said: “This baseless political attack rings hollow from a minister in a party that has supported governments that actively promote antisemitic policies in Hungary and Poland, and has spent the week wooing Trump – the man who refused to condemn neo-fascists in Charlottesville who chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’.”

Labour’s record on tackling antisemitism within the party has been a persistent source of concern, including among many of its own backbenchers. The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said earlier this week the party needed to deal with it more robustly.

Corbyn spent Wednesday in Portsmouth, attending the D-day commemorations alongside world leaders including US president Donald Trump.

The Tory leadership race is moving up a gear, with the first round of voting by MPs taking place on Thursday week.

Hancock, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab made their pitch at an event organised by the One Nation group of Conservative MPs.

The health secretary argued he was a better bet to fight the next general election than a rightwing Brexit supporter. He said he wanted to “slay the unicorn” that the next Tory leader had to have voted to leave the EU in 2016.

“We don’t need a Brexiteer as prime minister. We need someone who is committed to delivering Brexit,” he said, arguing that the next election could only be won by a “one nation” candidate.

“We don’t win the next election by only appealing to our base. We win by appealing to the next generation and appealing to people who haven’t voted Conservative before,” he said.

Hancock trails Boris Johnson, Gove and Hunt by a significant margin, judging by public declarations of support from Conservative MPs.

But his argument about appealing to the centre-ground was given some credence on Tuesday by an analysis from the Conservative peer and polling expert Robert Hayward. He said it would be impossible for the Tories to win an election with a leader who was not “transfer friendly”, and able to attract swing voters who were neither committed leavers nor remainers.

“A Tory prime minister or leader can’t win without Brexiteers; but you actually can’t win without the people who don’t strongly identify with one side or the other, and are looking for good government,” he said.

And he said Johnson may not be the right person to do that because many voters have a “distinct antipathy” towards him.

He said that while Johnson was very popular with a section of the electorate, he was also the leadership frontrunner who voters were most likely to say would make a bad prime minister.

Hayward pointed to a recent YouGov poll that suggested as many as 23% of respondents who had voted Conservative in 2017 thought Johnson would be a “very bad” prime minister.

In the same poll, 28% of the public thought he would make a good prime minister, outstripping any of the other eight candidates they asked about, but 54% thought he would do a bad job. For Gove, the equivalent numbers were 16% and 47% – and for Hunt, 13% and 42%.

“Gove and Hunt have similar problems; but the voters don’t appear to be so antipathetic, particularly to Hunt, and to some extent to Gove,” he said.

Johnson told MPs at Tuesday night’s private hustings: “We are facing an existential crisis and will not be forgiven if we do not deliver Brexit on 31 October.”

But Hayward argued that Johnson must also show what he could do to win over non-Brexiters.

At Wednesday’s hustings Raab, who told MPs he was “the only candidate that has set out a credible negotiating plan,” refused to rule out proroguing parliament if MPs seek to block a no-deal.

The former Brexit secretary hopes to achieve a revised agreement, but has made clear he would pursue a no-deal Brexit if that could not be achieved by the October deadline.

He told MPs, “we don’t just need a conviction Brexiteer. We need someone who is resolute, but someone who can navigate the rocky path ahead and get Brexit delivered.”

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said, “This is as disturbing as it is ludicrous. Anyone proposing to shut down Parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit is not fit to be prime minister.”

Gove risked a backlash from hard Brexiters by saying he would be willing to delay leaving the EU by a few weeks or months beyond the October deadline if it proved necessary to finalise a deal.

Guide to leadership race

George Eustice, the former farming minister, who backs Gove, said he had sought to be “honest” about the choices that might face the next leader.

“If we get to a point where we have nearly got a deal, where we’re 95% of the way there, you just need a few more weeks or a few more months, it would be foolhardy to flounce off,” he said.

Hunt’s pitch at the event involved highlighting the lessons the Tories could learn from the US president. “Trump focuses more on communicating with his base than we do. The Trump base has remained solid because he arrives at work knowing what the world is thinking and the world knows what he is thinking,” he said.


Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason

The GuardianTramp

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