Deputy PM Dowden claims Hertsmere voters are worried about Labour on Israel

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Deputy PM Dowden claims Hertsmere voters are worried about Labour on Israel

In an exclusive Jewish News interview, Oliver Dowden says Rishi Sunak was right to apologise for leaving the D-Day commemorations early in what was a 'genuine mistake'

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Hertsmere’s Conservative Oliver Dowden, pictured at the Western Wall
Hertsmere’s Conservative Oliver Dowden, pictured at the Western Wall

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden has raised concerns about the Labour Party position on Israel, while strongly defending Rishi Sunak following his decision to leave D Day commemoration events in Normandy early.

In an exclusive interview with Jewish News, Dowden, standing again as the Conservative candidate for Hertsmere, said:”Whether it’s what David Lammy said about the ICC (International Criminal Court), or the story today about putting Palestinian statehood in the manifesto, or whether it’s the sort of language and tone around Diane Abbott … I think, yes, there is some worry there.”

During a wide-ranging interview, Dowden said the community should expect to see the Conservative manifesto again include a renewed attempt to ban local councils from engaging in Israel boycotts, despite the government’s failure to get the Economic Activity of Public Bodies bill passed in the last parliament.

The politician also played down claims that foreign secretary Lord Cameron had become too critical of Israel over the impact of military action in Gaza, adding the current government should be “judged by its actions” such as the decision to use British aircraft to intercept Iranian drones in the attack last April.

But firstly reflecting on the need for Sunak to issue an apology on Friday after he left the 80th anniversary D-Day ceremony early to travel back from France to the UK to record a TV interview set to go out next week, Dowden said the PM had been right to apologise over what had been a “genuine mistake.”

Dowden added:”To be clear on this, I know from discussing it with the Prime Minister how passionately he cares about the sacrifice made by the D-Day veterans, something that I feel very strongly about as well.

“They fought for our freedom and our liberty and we should honour them.

“He was there for all the events involving British veterans. A decision was taken some time ago not to attend the international event. Now he says, with hindsight, that was a mistake and he’s apologised for it. And I think that’s right.”

Rishi Sunak apologies over D-Day commemoration early departure

Dowden also accepted that the forthcoming election was taking place during a “challenging” time for the party, but that he was “working hard” to secure votes in Hertsmere where he has “always felt my values of hard work and aspiration are the values of the Jewish community” in the constituency.

He faces a challenge at this election from Jewish Labour candidate Josh Tapper, widely known after appearing on Gogglebox, who was previously narrowly defeated in the local election in the Edgwarebury ward.

Also standing in Hertsmere are Emma Matanale for the Liberal Democrats, Darren Selkus for Reform UK, and John Humphries for the Greens.

Asked if he found the prospect of being favourite to win the seat he has represented since 2015, at a time when there could well be a new Labour government particularly daunting he said that in terms of support for Keir Starmer’s party “I think there’s a few things giving people pause for thought in terms of both the local and national picture.”

Dowden continued:”Tax is coming up on the doorstep. I say to people if you think that a Labour government is going to happen you had better start saving now.

“Because we already know the stuff they are talking about, the things they’ve announced, but there’s plenty of things they haven’t ruled out. A pension tax, very clearly not ruled out.

“Secondly on the green belt, a huge issue in Hertsmere. I was born and grew up in the green belt, I love walking and cycling and so on.

“Labour have got a clear policy which is to res-designate large chunks of the green belt as grey belt in order to build on it. ”

Oliver Dowden visits a synagogue in Hertsmere

Then turning to Israel, Dowden claimed:”I was very pleased with what Keir Starmer said recently (during the live TV election debate) in terms of the conflict in Israel and Gaza. This is eight months to the day since those terrible events of October 7th.

“But I just see, and think constituents notice, whether it’s what David Lammy said about the ICC or the story about putting Palestinian statehood in the manifesto, precipitously in my view.

“Or whether it’s in relation to the language and tone around Diane Abbott. I think there is some worry there.”

Dowden claimed these doubts over Labour meant “there is everything to fight for” although ahead of the July 4 poll he admitted “of course it’s a challenging election.”

But he added he was a “participant in this election” and that others could “commentate” on the state of the polls.

“My job is to win every vote I can in Hertsmere, and nationally, because I believe every vote for a Conservative means I’ll be returned as a strong voice for the Jewish community as you know I always have been,” he added.

But the ex-chair of the Tory Party, twice also elected as chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews, said while it was “great” that so many Jewish young familes wished to live in Hertsmere, he believed the community was not in favour of development in green belt areas like Woodstock Hill in the seat.

“I think the answer in building new houses is not to build on the Greenbelt. If you take Boreham Wood for example where there’s a large and growing Jewish community I don’t want us to build on Woodcock Hill or in any of those areas. I don’t think the Jewish community wants us to either.

“I think what we can do around stations, for example, is to make sure we have a greater density of housing, it makes sense for those areas to expand.

“But I think if we went after the green belt we would destroy the very thing that makes it attractive for familes to come here in the first place. You are surrounded by big fields, you have got a growing Jewish community, I don’t think we should put that in peril.”

Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden at the Heritage Foundation

Dowden, a strong Conservative Friends of Israel supporter, also defended the Tories record on long-held commitments to the Jewish community, including the passing of legislation to prevent local councils from engaging in Israel boycott campaigns.

PM Sunak failed in his pledge to get legislation passed in the last session of parliament, with the anti-BDS bill held up in Lords, after peers from across all parties raised concerns over drafting and its impact if becoming law.

But Dowden made a promise to Jewish News readers that they could “rest assured” that the forthcoming Conversative manifesto will once again include a commitment to legislate against anti-Israel boycotts.

He said he blamed Labour for “essentially blocking” the bill this time around, even though it faced criticism from senior Conservative MPs and peers including Alicia Kearns, chair of the foreign affairs select committee.

“If you looked at the votes we still had a majority in parliament,” he argued, adding that “when it comes to the future I will be pushing very strongly for it to be in the manifesto.”

Dowden then continued:”I’m almost certain it will be in the manifesto. You will have to wait for the manifesto to be published but I think your readers can rest assured that commitment will stand from the Conservative Party. It’s something I care passionately about.”

Asked about the commitment to tackle the antisemitic hate from some of those joining pro-Palestine demos, Dowden said his party had “taken steps to provide much more clarity for the police that the ‘From The River To The Sea’ chant is essentially anti-Zionist, essentially antisemitic chant.”

He also said police were now acting over those who covered their faces to obscure their identity on demos.

Dowden also asked the community to recognise that police had made a significant number of arrests with over 300 incidents being processed through the criminal system which would take time to deal with in terms of criminal charges.

“What I can say to you and your readers is, if they re-elect me they know I will be a very robust voice on this,” he added.

“What I worry about, all this talk about a super Labour majority. Just look at the way Labour appear to be stepping back a bit, whether it’s on the Palestinian state or the ICC.”

Dowden also rejected claims that through foreign secretary Lord Cameron, the Tories themselves had shifted their own stance on Israel.

“Judge us by our actions,” he said. “When Israel was attacked by Iran for the first time in the history of the UK we stood alongside Israel and British aircraft intercepted those attacks.

“If you look at the ICC, and look at the robustness, the Prime Minister dealt with that in contrast with what David Lammy said. If you look at the fundamental positions taken by the government we have been true to our word.”

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