Michael Gove has been criticised for “worrying” and "shameful" unwillingness to condemn Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán over antisemitism and xenophobia, after Tory MEPs refused to vote for taking action against his government.
The Environment Secretary was asked why his party's MEPs opposed last week triggering the EU’s most serious disciplinary procedure against the Hungarian government, which stands accused of "pandering to antisemitism".
The refusal caused a surge of anger and Lord Finkelstein, the Jewish Conservative peer, called it “very distressing” and “a shameful thing to have happened”.
Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Mr Gove said he would not "go down that route, play that game" when asked to condemn Mr Orbán.
He said: “I have views, but I’m not going to be drawn on my views of individual European leaders.”
Mr Marr suggested that unwillingness was “because you need his support.”
Mr Gove said: “No. Because I think it would be wrong for me, at a time when we need solidarity against a number of different threats – you mentioned antisemitism – we need to make sure that our voice is clear, our position on these issues is absolutely clear and resonant.
“And I don’t believe that individual criticisms of the kind that you are understandably tempting me to make necessarily help us in ensuring that we get both solidarity on the issues that count and the best deal for Britain as we leave the European Union.”
Dr David Hirsch, tutor at Goldsmiths University and author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism, said: “It is striking that some people find it easy to recognise racism and antisemitism within political movements that they hate but that sometimes the same people are completely unable to recognise it within movements they believe are fundamentally good and they wish to support.
“Even more worrying is the suggestion that a person who does recognise antisemitism would pretend not to in the hope of gaining some advantage in return from the antisemite."
He added: "The idea that Britain would now cosy up to an antisemitic and racist strong-man regime... is shameful.”
Dave Rich, deputy communications director of the Community Security Trust and the author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism, said: “It would be worrying if wider policy considerations made ministers reluctant to condemn antisemitic campaigns by foreign leaders, but it must be remembered that Michael Gove has a strong and consistent record of standing up against antisemitism and supporting the Jewish community, unlike many of the people who have criticised him for his comments.”
Mr Orbán has attacked refugees as "Muslim invaders" and waged a campaign against Jewish Hungarian billionaire George Soros, who survived the Holocaust as a child and whom the Hungarian PM accused of wanting to “take over” the country.
In the run-up to his re-election this year, Mr Orbán gave a speech full of antisemitic tropes.
“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us," he said. “They do not fight directly, but by stealth; they are not honourable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.
"They are not generous, but vengeful, and always attack the heart.”
During his interview on Sunday, Mr Gove said Tory MEPs voted against action only because they did not believe the EU should "interfere in or censure the internal democracy of a particular country".
He said: “That is very, very far from endorsing or supporting the positions that (Mr Orbán) takes.”