It’s goodbye from Robert Halfon MP, the Essex man who took on ivory tower bigotry

Exclusive interview with the Harlow MP who is stepping down from politics


Robert Halfon at home reading Tolkein

“My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help.”

That quote from Gandalf, the wizard in Lord of the Rings, was the emotional sign-off from the much-admired Conservative politician Robert Halfon following his announcement in March that he would be leaving government and standing down as the MP for Harlow in Essex.

The 55-year-old former universities minister, who is Jewish and much admired for holding vice chancellors to account over growing antisemitism on campus, is standing down from a marginal seat he held for 14 years.

Walking into Halfon’s living room, it is immediately obvious that the JRR Tolkein quote wasn’t something quickly Googled by an aide to add dramatic effect to his resignation letter.

He boasts shelves full of the author’s works, Lord of the Rings tea coasters, a Hobbit mug – and a Tolkien-esque pipe sits on the tray next to him. 

Why has Halfon, who served in the cabinet under David Cameron and was most recently Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, decided to leave the Commons? Polling suggests his Conservative Party need every little bit of help it can get ahead of a possible annihilation at the ballot box. Is it because of the strong chance his seat will go Labour in the upcoming election? 

“Now was the time not to outstay my welcome,” he says, “I have been the candidate here since 1999. And it's been close to 25 years both being candidate fighting six elections, 14 years as an MP.”

Halfon, who has a walking disability, a form of cerebral palsy known as spastic diplegia, won’t miss the gruelling parliamentary timetable. “You’re often voting at 10, 11 or 12 o'clock at night. If you start the day at 6am and are in the office at 8am it can be a very long day,” he says, adding: “I'll have more time to go swimming”. “Parliament isn't the best place in the world to be if you want to be healthy.”

Another thing he won’t miss are the mice. Despite Parliament’s picturesque setting, the estate is far from glamorous and is riddled with them. Halfon said he would be chatting to colleagues in the members’ tearoom and suddenly spot a mouse scuttling over his foot. Even worse, “sometimes they'd be in my office, or they get stuck behind the radiators, die and leave an unbelievable stench!”

Halfon, who grew up in north west London, was described by a Guardian editorial as a “champion of ‘white van’ concerns about petrol prices and high hospital car-parking charges”. If that was an attempt at a slur, it makes no impression on him. He says he will miss “being able to change the world albeit in a small way”.

What is more, his campaigning on fuel duty clearly had an impact on government policy. Halfon, called a “long-time motorists champion” by the Sun, was keen to point out that “the government has frozen and cut fuel duty,” and “they haven't dared raise it.”

Halfon, who served as chair of Parliament’s Education Select Committee for nearly five years, is passionate about apprenticeships and further education. Apprenticeships are “the greatest ladder of opportunity for people to climb,” he says, noting that he’d visited his local further education college local “over 110 times”. He claimed the Conservatives “have revolutionised apprenticeships and skills in our country” and considered this one of his, and his party’s, key achievements in government. He led by example on apprenticeships and was the first MP to employ a parliamentary apprentice in his office.

On further education, he is proud of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement that is set roll out the next few years. He claimed the programme of grants and loans for mature students will allow people to “train and retrain throughout their lives at a time of their choosing”.

What did he make of his party’s woeful standing in the polls? “It’s difficult,” he said. But insisted that there is “absolutely no love for Labour at all” on the streets of Harlow. He maintained that the picture might not be as bad for his party on July 4, “I don't get a lot of people coming to me saying they're going to vote for Kier Starmer, it doesn't mean they're over the moon with the Conservatives, but I genuinely believe there are a lot of undecided people out there.”

Could the government have done better to prevent this dire polling? Yes, but, “you name me what government hasn't made mistakes”. Covid, he claimed, was responsible for transforming the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes, just like it transformed society. “Who knew what Zoom was before Covid,” he joked, but had it not been for the pandemic, he claimed Boris Johnson would still be in Downing Street and “we wouldn't have had the difficult economic challenges because we wouldn't have had to spend £400 billion plus on Covid.”

As well as championing the policies of “Essex man”, Halfon will miss using his voice in Parliament to support Israel. As a minister he says he felt driven to do “everything” he could to try to combat antisemitism at universities. He described the celebratory reaction by some in the UK to the atrocities of October 7 as “terrifying”. He was appalled by some of the hostility to Israel on university campuses and slammed some university vice chancellors for “at best doing nothing and at worst appeasing” the worst excesses of the anti-Israel protests.

Could the government have done more? Halfon reminded me that in the immediate aftermath of October, the Israeli flag was beamed onto Downing Street. He noted that the government also banned Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir shortly after speakers from the group chanted for jihad against Israel in a demonstration in London.

The former minister said that the prime minister fully backed him when it came to taking antisemitism at universities seriously. “Rishi Sunak called in vice chancellors to Downing Street to warn them about antisemitism,” he says, “when I was a minister, No10 and Gillian [Keegan, the Education Secretary] could not have done more with me to try and deal with this problem.”

Halfon described the era of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party (2015-2020) as “pretty awful,” that, “the atmosphere felt very tense for Jewish people for the first time in my life.” He recalled an incident where someone shouted at him that he should “go back to Israel” and that he worked “for Mossad”, but he insisted that “normal people” in Harlow have no time for those attitudes.

Whenever Halfon speaks to a Jewish audience, he likes to repeat the legendary Golda Meir quote that “pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.” It is important for Jews to remember that “despite everything that's going on, the vast majority of people in this country are not antisemitic.”

According to him, the Eurovision Song Contest, where the British public awarded Israel’s Eden Golan a full 12 points despite the hostility she faced from protesters and some of her fellow contestants, demonstrated this.

“There's a quiet majority of people out there who don't like what's going on, who don't like the extremist marches. Normal, decent people. We've always got to remember that, because even there is a minority of awful people, it's not a majority,” he says.

Is this really the last we will see of Halfon in politics? Does his journey really end here? He does not rule out a return to Parliament if he were to be offered a peerage. Despite saying that he suspects there will be a “queue bigger than the Selfridges sale” of Conservatives hoping to get into the House of Lords, he would be “honoured and delighted to do it”.

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