Chanucah in the corridors of power

Cabinet Ministers brave doughnut overload as the party season kicks off


This week, being a friend of Israel came at a heavy price.

Parliamentarians and business moguls protectively clasped their bellies and apologised for not being able to stomach another bite as freshly-stocked trays of doughnuts made their way around this week's series of Chanucah parties.

On Monday, 750 guests attended the Conservative Friends of Israel annual lunch. The guest list was even more impressive than usual. Milling around the Israeli-owned Park Plaza Hotel, in central London, were World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, half the Cabinet and 160 MPs.

Joining them was a less-than-comfortable looking Richard Desmond, who had donated £1million to Ukip ahead of the general election.

Prominent Tories stood chatting between speeches by Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor, London mayor candidate Zac Goldsmith and CFI chairman Sir Eric Pickles.

Chancellor George Osborne, billed as guest of honour and touted by many as next party leader, had pulled out due to other commitments, so three Cabinet colleagues held forth in his place.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan led a conversation with Business Secretary Sajid Javid and Justice Secretary Michael Gove.

She promised to press them on issues relating to Israel – pointing out that she knew "all the tricks" of interviewees.

For 20 minutes, the three competed to win over the audience the most. They praised Israel's start-up prowess, emphasised her right to defend herself, and stessed that no other party - especially Labour under Jeremy Corbyn - would ever support Israel the way the Conservatives do.

A couple of watching MPs speculated on whether the party's future leader could be sitting on the panel. "They're all fighting for it right now," laughed one. "It's going to be Osborne, but I'm not a fan," said another.

As one party ended, another began, as guests trooped across Westminster Bridge to Downing Street for the annual Chanucah lighting at Number 10.

David Cameron, usually the star turn, was away visiting flood victims in Cumbria. So it was left to Home Secretary Theresa May to accompany Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in lighting the menorah.

But the warmest welcomes were reserved for the community's unsung heroes, with a large turnout of charity volunteers and Jewish armed forces veterans who gathered to hear pupils from Manchester's King David Primary School singing Maoz Tzur.

Mrs May, Mr Javid and Sir Eric risked a sugar overdose as they attended their second Chanucah bash of the week - this time the Board of Deputies' reception on Wednesday evening in Parliament.

Among 80 MPs and peers were Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, the SNP's Westminster leader Angus Robertson (resplendent in a tartan kippah) and Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat leader - who rushed to the event after visiting a Salvation Army Christmas hostel. Labour's London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan and Speaker John Bercow were also in attendance.

But it was the appearance of strident Israel critic Sir Gerald Kaufman that raised eyebrows among communal leaders in the room. A Board spokesman explained that all MPs had been invited.

In a short speech, Mr Watson appeared to allude to Mr Corbyn's fraught relations with Britain's Jewish community. He said: "How important it is to me personally that my party continues to have a warm relationship with the UK's Jewish community; and I know that my Labour colleagues feel the same."

And it was only Wednesday…

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