Strong, stable... and laughing: the Theresa May interview

In an exclusive interview, the Prime Minister talks to JC political editor Marcus Dysch


Under the circumstances, the Prime Minister was calm personified.

A week after the appalling terrorist atrocity in Manchester, and only a few hours ahead of her first television ‘debate’ of the election campaign, Theresa May could have been expected to be frenetic.

But Mrs May is someone who rarely seems out of control, and in her only national Jewish media interview ahead of polling day on Thursday she is relaxed and friendly, sipping a glass of water and taking time to think through her answers, even if in some moments it appears she is grasping for specific facts and figures which never emerge.

Before sitting down with me, her arrival at Conservative Central Office in Westminster on Monday afternoon comes amid a flurry of activity.

A small army of plain-clothed special branch officers pace the corridors, awaiting the Prime Ministerial Jaguar’s entrance. When the car swings into the grounds of the office, protection officers appear, as does Mrs May, carrying her own bags and swiftly sweeping up the stairs into the building.

I am taken through the swathes of security guards and into the allotted meeting room where, awaiting me, is Mrs May, who rises from her seat at the head of an enormous wooden table to greet me.

An hour earlier she had been leading a Tory rally in south-west London. On television she looked grey, pale and exhausted, but here in the comfort of her own party offices, her eyes are bright and sharp. For a notoriously press-shy politician, she appears relatively happy to be talking to me.

As the interview begins, the room is suddenly quiet and only the Prime Minister, her press aide, me and a photographer are present.

I begin by asking Mrs May about the Conservative Party’s policies on Israel. Last December, Britain wrote and heavily backed UN Resolution 2334. It was heavily critical of a series of Israeli actions, especially over settlement building in the West Bank. Yet by March, Britain had put the UN Human Rights Council “on notice” about its “bias and disproportion against Israel”.

So what is the Prime Minister’s real approach to Israel, and why the flip-flopping?

“It wasn’t flip-flopping,” she says, bluntly. “We supported the UN resolution because it did predominantly support the views we had taken on similar resolutions. I have been very clear about the settlements in speeches I have given. We think these are illegal and should be stopped.

“But looking more widely, there have been a number of developments since. We have taken the stance we have because we do believe in a two-state solution. We believe both parties should be sitting around the table when there’s a discussion.”

Mrs May points out that the Paris conference on the Middle East in January, which she insisted Britain snub by not sending senior government and diplomatic representatives, had not included an Israeli delegation.

“Where the international community is shining a light on what is happening then it should do so in a fair way,” she says.

The Tory manifesto was the only one of the main parties’ election policy documents which did not outline a position on Palestinian statehood and Britain’s approach to Israel generally.

But Mrs May argues that her manifesto was “approached in a rather different way”. The Tories “didn’t look at every single subject government deals with, we looked and focussed on the big challenges we face as a society”, she explains.

One of the key concerns for British Jews has been rising antisemitism, particularly with the crisis that has engulfed the Labour Party over the past 20 months. The problem has become so severe that only 13 per cent of the community say they are likely to vote Labour next week.

Yet it is Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto which outlines a clear approach to tackling Jew-hatred, while Mrs May’s document carries not one line on the issue. So is she taking Jewish votes for granted?

“Absolutely not,” she replies. “I never take any vote for granted.”

The Prime Minister goes on to explain how the electorate faces a “very clear choice” — it is one which you may have heard her outline before.

The choice, she says, is “between me and my team and the very strong and stable leadership we can provide, for negotiating Brexit and for taking us beyond Brexit to a stronger Britain; or the coalition of chaos which would see Jeremy Corbyn propped up by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats”.

As Home Secretary she was alarmed to see antisemitism rising and since entering Number 10 has attempted to tackle the increase by overseeing the introduction of the hate crime action plan, she explains.

I wonder how Mrs May assesses Mr Corbyn’s handling of Labour’s antisemitism fiasco, aside from the cynical but obvious conclusion that his failures have handed her an overwhelming majority of the community’s votes.

But the Prime Minister is unwilling to spend much of our time together discussing the Leader of the Opposition.

“There is no place for antisemitism in our society, none whatsoever,” she says when asked specifically about Labour. “And any political party that wants to be the government of this country needs to deal with antisemitism where it exists, and should it exist within the ranks of their party.”

Does she believe Mr Corbyn is fit to tackle the difficulties in his party?

Mrs May thinks for a moment before answering: “He and the Labour Party have sadly shown that they did not seem to be capable of recognising what was happening in their party and then dealing with it effectively.

“I think it’s important that we are willing to be open if we do see incidents, that everybody is open about it and then deals with it.”

The Prime Minister is composed and measured at this point. She is not ranting about her opponent’s failings, but perhaps she feels it is unnecessary to labour the point when the scale of Labour’s troubles — and the community’s reaction to them — is so obvious.

Instead we move on to another issue of vital interest to British Jews – education. The Tory pledge to make new faith schools “prove that parents of other faiths and none would be prepared to send their children to that school” would appear to put plans for new strictly Orthodox establishments in jeopardy.

Mrs May disagrees and tries to explain that the policy is intended to “ensure schools can provide for their local community”, but the point falls flat. She goes on to repeat her intention to remove the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions to free schools.

This is a policy change for which the Chief Rabbi has repeatedly argued — including by personally attempting to persuade Department of Education officials. And it is a policy which would, of course, allow Jewish free schools to avoid offering places to children of other religions.

So did Rabbi Mirvis lobby her directly on the issue during one of his visits to Number Ten?

Earlier in the afternoon the Prime Minister had been described as a “glumbucket”, so obstinately does she come across at times, but my question prompts her to throw her head back and let out a rare, hearty laugh. It is a nervous reaction — she appears stunned that I should know about her meetings with the Chief Rabbi. Almost immediately Mrs May regains her composure, fixes her gaze on me, and says, in that peculiar way that only a politician can: “I have had a number of interesting discussions with the Chief Rabbi on a number of different topics.”

It is a similar answer to the one he gave me when I asked him the same question in January.

Clearly the pair are close, but neither is willing to admit — or even just explain — how their working relationship developed, or its resulting effect on either of them. Why they refuse to discuss it is unclear; prime ministers and chief rabbis have often been allies on a range of political and religious issues.

I must have been on to something, because before I can ask about Mrs May’s dinner date at the Mirvis family home on the night before she became Prime Minister, her press adviser jumps in, cuts me off and says our time is up.

It would have been preferable to spend longer asking questions, but the session ends with time allotted for taking photographs. While it is very kind of Mrs May to pose for the camera, it is really quite unnecessary.

Six minutes and 36 seconds is, clearly, an unsuitable amount of time to fully assess a Prime Minister’s approach to our community or to do much more than scratch the surface of her policies on the issues of greatest relevance to British Jews.

But these are more minutes than Mr Corbyn has set aside. Despite repeated requests for an interview, Labour has never made its leader available to speak to the JC. In March I asked him face-to-face if he would be interviewed and he appeared keen. But now, at this most crucial moment, he has ducked out.

For now, Mrs May has done her bit with regards Jewish voters. But if she returns to Downing Street at the end of next week re-elected as Prime Minister, she will find British Jewry ready and waiting to pose ever-tougher questions on her position on Israel and how exactly she plans to reduce antisemitism in the months and years to come.

However strong and stable she professes to be, Mrs May will need more fulsome answers.

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