| A Few Minutes With |

A Few Minutes with… Robert Halfon   

Robert Halfon is a former UK government minister and MP

Britain’s governing Conservatives look set for a spectacular thrashing at the upcoming election. For a party that won an 80-seat landslide just five years ago, built on a coalition of post-industrial cultural conservatives and the affluent middle class, it seems incredible that it’s headed for near-wipeout on July 4, with some polls predicting it will retain fewer than 100 of the 365 seats it won in 2019.

A lot has changed since the last election — Covid, inflation exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, and a series of self-inflicted errors by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his successors Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Simultaneously, Labour leader Keir Starmer has successfully rehabilitated his party, purged the Corbynite left, wooed businesses, and capitalized on the Tories’ record of economic stagnation and instability to present Labour as the party of economic growth and functioning public services.

Nigel Farage’s populist right-wing Reform party is neck-in-neck with the Conservatives and attracting many of their Northern voters. Meanwhile, the center-left Liberal Democrats are targeting prosperous Southern and Western England, squeezing the Conservatives from three directions.

As the once-mighty party fights for its survival, how has it come to this pitiable state? Can it be saved? Which policies and which leadership are their best bets for returning to government? And importantly for the Jewish community, with tensions in the Labour-voting Muslim community roiling since October 7, has Labour really been detoxified enough to run the country safely?

Former Conservative MP Robert Halfon represented a parliamentary seat that has swung the way of the victorious party since 1983, and is a longstanding champion of blue-collar conservatism. Of Jewish descent, he was chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, one of the most active back-bench MPs, and served twice as education minister. As he retires from front-line politics, he shares his views on the future of his party, the country, Israel and anti-Semitism — at a time when British Jewry is feeling increasingly threatened by the pro-Palestinian movement.


Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour was rife with anti-Semitism, with Jewish MPs facing unprecedented abuse and harassment from party members, their plight ignored and tolerated by Corbyn. Has Keir Starmer really detoxified the Labour Party?

There’s been some change from the Corbyn years, which were awful, without a doubt. There’s been change at the center, but at the constituency Labour Party level, they hate Israel and have rather unpalatable views. Starmer has changed the center and expelled Jeremy Corbyn, but they have a long way to go. There is still anti-Semitism in the undergrowth. Since the horrific events of October 7, most Labour MPs who speak in the Commons have been critical of Israel. By contrast, most Conservative MPs who speak in the Commons have been pretty supportive of Israel. That’s quite telling.

Can Conservatives be trusted to stand by Israel when David Cameron has previously called Gaza an “open-air prison” and criticized the Israeli government over their military offensive and humanitarian aid?

I disagree. Both Rishi Sunak and Cameron have been very supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself. The PM put an Israel flag on Downing Street after October 7, that’s never happened before. Overall, you could not have in Rishi Sunak, [Home Secretary] James Cleverly, [Communities Secretary] Michael Gove, and people like myself across the Conservative Party, more supportive friends of Israel. They may not agree with everything Israel does, but you have to look at the foundations, which are pretty strong, and I think the PM should be commended for his support of Israel.

The Conservatives’ poll predictions, both on voting intention and constituency level, are dire. How has a party that won a landslide a few years ago disintegrated like this?

I wouldn’t say it’s disintegrated. The Conservative Party is one of the most successful parties in the Western world. But the difficulty we see in the polls is partly due to the effects of Covid, which caused an NHS backlog, and led us to spend £450 billion trying to help people with various schemes, including furlough, and also due to the war in Ukraine, which pushed up energy prices and therefore the cost of living. If you look around Europe, every government faces similar challenges, just as the Conservative government does.

Under the Conservatives, immigration has trebled since 2010, despite repeated promises from consecutive administrations to reduce it. What role do you think these broken promises played?

It depends what you see as broken promises. Immigration is a problem all over Europe. We’ve cut illegal immigration on small boats by a third. We have the Rwanda agreement coming through now, which was opposed by Labour at every stage. Once that agreement is done, we expect it to deter small boats; these dangerous journeys are run by gangs and must be stopped.

Was it a mistake to oust Boris, a proven vote-winner?

Boris was a great campaigner and interesting politician. At the time, there were significant problems with Partygate and other scandals that had gone on. It’s hard to know whether he would make a difference now. When I was an MP, I got many emails from constituents very upset about the parties. It’s not an easy black-and-white question. If there had been no Covid, these things wouldn’t have happened, but I’m a big supporter of Rishi Sunak. He’s a very decent man and has solved a lot of problems.

Was there anything Rishi Sunak could have done to turn things around?

The election is not over yet, so we can’t assume the Tories will lose, but the key thing that Rishi had to do when he took over was to sort out the economy, which he’s done successfully. Inflation is down from 11% to 2.3%. Employment is up, and the cost-of-living challenges, while by no means over, have started to decrease. He’s stabilized the economy, and that was a crucial thing to do.

So why hasn’t that translated into a recovery in the polls?

People are still facing cost-of-living challenges, so polls are still stuck where they were. Every government in Europe has faced changes. Also, the important thing is to do what’s right for the country, not necessarily for political popularity, and Rishi has achieved quite a few great things for the country. He’s sorted out an agreement on Northern Ireland and done some great things on apprenticeships and skills, which is my passion.

Will Reform split the Tories?

We’ve had UKIP and the Brexit Party in the past. These movements come and go. I’m confident that whatever happens, after the election, the Conservatives will come together. We need to appeal to all voters, particularly “floating voters,” who float between different parties at each election. We need to make sure we have policies in cost of living, GP surgeries, housing. I want to build a big tent, not just appeal to a narrow base.

Instead of playing fantasy economics by promising tax cuts as public services struggle, why aren’t the Conservatives just owning up to the fact that they’ve raised taxes, but that it’s not being wasted on pet projects — it’s to pay back the Covid bill?

I completely disagree. There’s no evidence that it’s fantasy economics. Everything’s been carefully costed. We’ve made National Insurance cuts worth £900 to average workers and ensured pensioners are not being taxed twice, on their earned income, and their pensions. A lot of money is being raised from clamping down on tax avoidance and the abolition of the non-domicile tax loophole [a tax exemption for non-permanent residents of the UK] to pay for that. People have been calling for us to cut taxes further, but we’re cutting very carefully and responsibly.

Voters want to see more houses built. Can the Conservatives, in their current form, change planning laws to build more houses, or will it always be constrained by councils in Tory-held areas who campaign against housebuilding in their patch?

We have changed planning laws, but we do need to protect our green belt. We’ve built 2.5 million new homes since we took power in 2010, including 700,000 affordable homes. There’s an £11.5 billion affordable homes program. We’ve announced planning reforms that will help people build more homes beautifully and sustainably.

What’s the one policy you wish you could implement that would make the biggest difference to people?

I did a lot when I was a minister for apprenticeships and skills, and I’m hoping for an apprenticeships guarantee. Every person with the right qualifications should have a guarantee to be able to access apprenticeships. We currently have 690 types of jobs that could be apprenticed. Labour’s policy is to cut apprenticeships. At the moment, small businesses get 100% funding to train 16- to 21-year-old apprentices, funded by the apprenticeships levy. Labour want to abolish the levy and replace it with a skills levy, but studies show it will eliminate 50% to 60% of apprenticeships. The government already has additional skills programs.

If the Conservatives lose, who do you think in the current crop of MPs would be the party’s best bet to regaining power, who can unite both disgruntled moderates and cultural conservatives who are now leaning Lib Dem and Reform?

There are some very good MPs in the party, [Education Secretary] Gillian Keegan, [Security Minister] Tom Tugendhat, and there are some very impressive MPs coming through at the next election like Rupert Harrison, [former Chancellor] George Osborne’s chief of staff, and Nick Timothy [former PM Theresa May’s joint chief of staff]. The new generation is very impressive, but we have to see who gets elected first.

Again, should the Tories lose, as the polls suggest, what do they need to do now to ensure their stint in opposition is a short one?

Be compassionate conservatives, putting social justice at its heart, be a broad church, find ways to reach people who might want to vote Reform, and develop a range of policies that would appeal to both. But we need to have those policies, whether we’re in government or in opposition.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1016)

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