Tugendhat: ‘We need the right team to keep power and retain Jewish support’
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Tugendhat: ‘We need the right team to keep power and retain Jewish support’

INTERVIEW: Foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat, tipped by some as the next Tory leader, tells Lee Harpin the party needs to start delivering for all UK communities

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling, speaking at the Ulster Unionist Party conference in Belfast, Saturday October 9, 2021.
Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling, speaking at the Ulster Unionist Party conference in Belfast, Saturday October 9, 2021.

A leading Conservative MP has insisted that the party must have “the right team to carry the message” after accepting there is a need to win back lost support within the Jewish community and elsewhere after this month’s local election results.

Tom Tugendhat, chair of the influential foreign affairs select committee, said results for the Tories, including the loss of councils such as Barnet in north London, were “frankly, quite difficult to hear”.

Asked about criticism of Boris Johnson’s performance as prime minister, heard from some within the community, the MP said: “It’s an issue that comes up quite frequently, and comes up more in some places than others, but it does come up everywhere.

“The reality is we need to demonstrate consistently that we have the right team to carry the message to the United Kingdom.

“This isn’t about individuals, the prime minister or a minister or whatever. It’s about whether or not we are delivering.

“And I think the reason this comes up more today is because people feel we are not – whether that’s on our tax rates, which are at the highest level for 70 years, the cost of living, which is putting huge pressure on families.

“I am proportionately well paid, and I can tell you, I am feeling it.”

In a revealing interview with Jewish News, the MP for Tonbridge and Malling in Kent added: “I think what we need to do is start delivering and the Jewish community is not different than any other community in the UK.

“People care about homes, about the cost of living, opportunities for their families and young people.

“We need to start delivering on things, we need to deliver on growing our economy, on housing opportunities for young people to start families.

“And as far as I am concerned on lower taxes and the opportunity to grow business.”

Tom Tugendhat during his time serving with the Royal Marines.

Tugendhat, 48, who has been tipped by some as the next leader of the Conservative Party, said the local election results also showed “nobody went into the elections with a love of the Labour Party”.

Although he then added: “That does not necessarily make our position better.”

Asked if he felt that Keir Starmer’s pledge to root out antisemitism from his party had been successful, Tugendhat said initially: “You need to ask somebody in Labour to comment on the Labour Party.” But he added: “The Labour Party, of which many people who were in there then are still in there now, tried to push an antisemite into Number 10, and have opened a door on antisemitism that many of us feel is not closed.”

Tugendhat said his vision of a more positive path for the Conservatives involved “making sure people have as much control of their lives as they possibly can”.

Many people still in the Labour Party tried to push an antisemite into Number 10

He said the “quickest thing” his party could do now was to deal with questions around lowering tax and VAT on fuel.

“We can lower tax on individuals to help pay the bills – you know we’re seeing income tax rising, so-called fiscal lags, when people are paying higher rates,” he said. “We do have opportunities to look differently at this and I hope very much we will.”

Addressing the housing crisis facing the country, Tugendhat praises the proposals recently outlined recently by levelling up secretary Michael Gove.

He also highlighted the experiences of the Charedi community in densely populated areas such as Stamford Hill.

The former journalist and public relations consultant said: “You don’t need me to tell you that there are various communities who, for Shabbat reasons, need to be within each other and a synagogue or whatever but who have taken to building extra storeys on what would normally be standard UK semis.

“There are various ways of adding extra storeys, if locally communities agree to it.

“What you are doing there is intensifying the density of the community, increasing the housing stock, but you are doing it with the consent of the community living there, and I think that’s an important thing to do.”

Tugendhat added: “Density does not mean poor-quality housing… good architecture can make dense housing into places we want to live. I think there’s where we want to get to.”

A former soldier, who had served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Tugendhat has long been viewed as a formidable expert in foreign policy and relations.

Under his leadership of the foreign affairs select committee, a May 2018 report into Russian corruption and the UK had drawn attention to the ability of President Putin and his allies to launder assets through London.

A former soldier, who had served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Tugendhat has long been viewed as a formidable expert in foreign policy and relations.

At the time it called on the UK government to “show stronger political leadership in ending the flow of dirty money into the UK”.

Today, Tugendhat says he is “astonished” at “how bad” tactically the Russian military invasion of Ukraine has been.

“When you think about it, this is the product of 30 years of corruption and failure at the top,” he says of Vladimir Putin’s brutal, but inept, war strategy.

“I am in no doubt the Russians are about to be defeated,” he adds. “The Ukrainian people will be able to be free.”

Tugendhat, a name that stems from the MP’s grandfather, who was grew up in Vienna, Austria, as a Jew, before converted to Catholicism to marry, also concedes that he has been left appalled by Putin’s repeated claim that he has engaged in a battle of de-Nazification of Ukraine.

He says he was “most shocked recently” after Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood”.

The Russian made the comments to try to justify Putin’s portrayal of Ukraine as “Nazi” despite the fact Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish.

“I am in no doubt the Russians are about to be defeated,” he adds. “The Ukrainian people will be able to be free.”

“Those of us who know what real Nazis look like, now look at President Zelensky, who not only is Jewish, but whose three great uncles were killed by the Nazis, while his great and his grandfather survived the war,” observes Tugendhat.

“It would be laughable if it wasn’t so grotesque and insulting. It’s very worrying that these phrases are being used.”

Asked if he is surprised that there has not been a greater show of anti-Putin sentiment among the Russian people, he said: “I think the reality is the one thing about being a dictator is the violent and paranoid dictatorship.

“He has killed a lot of people who have been prepared to challenge him.”

Asked if he believed Putin would be able to survive after the war was over, Tugendhat added: “I don’t know – that’s a matter for the Russian people.”

As for repercussions for those responsible for the war, he added: “I think that those who committed war crimes should be taken to [the International Criminal Court in] the Hague. The Ukrainian government has already begun war crime trials on Russian soldiers who have raped and murdered in Ukraine. It’s very important.”

With Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine continuing to dominate the headlines, Tugendhat accepts that it has been harder to publicise his relentless and fearless crusade against the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim population.

“I think calling it out is essential,” he says, praising the “really important” Jewish News campaign highlighting the same issue.

“You don’t need to see the scenes of the trains and the camps to have the echo flashing strongly through your mind. It’s not the same, but there are echoes. And it leaves a lot of us feeling very uncomfortable.”

Within the community, Tugendhat has long attracted much good will for his continued strong support for the state of Israel.

He praises Israel’s current fragile coalition government as “extraordinary” , saying it has “focused on doing what a really good government should do, fixing roads, fixing the hospitals and the schools”.

He “of course” backs the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, in the Queen’s Speech aimed at preventing local councils from singling out Israel for divestment policies, in support of the Palestinians.

And Tugendhat has no time for those who suggest that there is a contradiction between calling for sanctions against China for human rights abuses while stopping those arguing for similar actions in support of the Palestinians.

“I don’t see that for very clear reasons,” he said. “It is simply not true to describe actions in the West Bank and actions in China in the same breath. It is just not accurate.”

He is similarly dismissive of those who suggest that Israel cannot carry out a fair and independent investigation into incidents such as last week’s killing of the Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh while working in the West Bank. He said he did not feel the need to call for an independent investigation into the death.

“The reality is Israel is a vibrant democracy, and the reality is there are many MKs who are already calling for one,” he added.

He said he had not had the opportunity to look at the scenes at Abu Akleh’s funeral enough to offer a view on the Israeli police forces’ conduct, but added: “I do know the judiciary in Israel is famously independent.

“In fact it’s the only judiciary in the Middle East where a head of state has been sent to prison, and the judge presiding happened to be an Arab as well.

“Which is quite telling about Israeli democracy and the rule of law.”

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