The Tories’ support for Hungary is part of a decade of far-right alliances in Europe

In the EU parliament, Conservatives sit with the Sweden Democrats, Poland’s anti-Semitic Law and Justice Party, and the Islamophobic Danish People’s Party. 

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Not before time, the European Parliament has voted to enact disciplinary action against Hungary’s authoritarian, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic government. The motion was passed by 448-197 votes and backed by all major centre-right parties with one exception: the British Conservative Party.

Tory MEPs were whipped to oppose action against Viktor Orbán’s self-described “illiberal democracy”, which has waged an anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros and strangled Hungary’s free press, with only two out of 19 Conservatives refusing to do so. This puts Theresa May’s party in the same company as the far-right Sweden Democrats (a party with neo-Nazi roots), Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Italy’s League, and Poland’s anti-Semitic Law and Justice Party.

May, who yesterday denounced Labour as “institutionally racist” at Prime Minister’s Questions, was said by No 10 to have been unaware of her party’s stance (“we weren’t consulted in advance”). The Jewish Board of Deputies president, Marie van der Zyl said in response: “I note with disappointment that Conservative Party MEPs have voted in defence of Hungary’s populist, right-wing government of Viktor Orban.

“As we have stated previously, we are very alarmed by the messages at the heart of Orban’s election campaign, including his comments about ‘Muslim invaders’, calling migrants poison, and the vivid anti-Semitism in the relentless campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.”

But the surprise is that anyone should be surprised. For nearly a decade, largely unreported by the media, the Conservatives have unashamedly aligned themselves with Europe’s far right.

The roots of this dark alliance were laid under the supposedly liberal David Cameron. During his 2005 Tory leadership campaign, in order to woo anti-EU members away from Liam Fox, Cameron vowed to withdraw the Conservatives from the mainstream European People’s Party (the parliamentary grouping that includes the German Christian Democrats and other leading cente-right parties).

In 2009, a new caucus, the European Conservatives and Reformists, was duly formed. But in order to meet the parliamentary threshold, the Tories aligned themselves with rum company, including Latvia’s ethnonationalist National Alliance (“For Fatherland and Freedom”) and Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party (whose then leader Michal Kaminski was a former member of the neo-Nazi National Revival of Poland). The latter alliance was denounced by Jewish leaders in the New Statesman, one of whom warned: “Any politician of any political party should have the moral courage to clearly distance themselves from those who espouse and promote anti-Semitism, racism or any attitude that fosters intolerance”.

But the Tories were undeterred. In 2014, the far-right Danish People’s Party (a spokesman for whom once likened the Muslim headscarf to the swastika) and the ultra-nationalist True Finns were added to the grouping.

Cameron, however, would eventually pay for his Faustian pact. Though the move helped him secure the Tory leadership in 2005, centre-right leaders were appalled by his opportunism and moral relativism. Angela Merkel, the “auntie” who Cameron hoped would come to his rescue during the Brexit negotiations, felt no compulsion to do so.

In the era of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tories ever more resemble their political partners in Europe. But the party’s refusal to confront the authoritarianism and racism of Hungary and Poland stems from similarly cynical motives.

By dividing the EU 27 over Brexit, the UK hopes to rule. As one Conservative politician remarked: “No one will say it publicly, but it’s clear that we are going to gain brownie points with people who might be able to help us in the Brexit negotiations.

But the Tories’ machinations will only strengthen the resolve of Germany, France and others to uphold the EU’s values. The same parliament that has just voted to punish Hungary has a binding vote on the Brexit deal that May hopes to strike. Not only is the Tories’ cynical maneouvre likely to fail – it will deserve to.

In the meantime, as long as the Conservatives continue to share space with the likes of the Sweden Democrats (who joined the group in July), they will be unfit to lecture Labour, or indeed anyone, on racism.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.