The European Parliament’s Brexit chief has accused one of Theresa May’s closest allies of spreading “far-right, Kremlin-sponsored conspiracy theories”, after he co-authored a front page article attacking financier George Soros.
Guy Verhofstadt said the piece by Ms May’s former advisor Nick Timothy in The Daily Telegraph, which accused Jewish businessman Mr Soros of a “secret plot” to thwart Brexit, had no place in a mainstream newspaper.
He went on to say the article would have delighted Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban who, along with Vladimir Putin’s allies, has consistently peddled claims Mr Soros has meddled in sovereign European nations.
The row reached Downing Street on Thursday, with Mr Timothy still said to have the ear of Ms May and a guiding hand on her policy ideas.
The article he wrote set out Mr Soros’s involvement in the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign group, and then went on to repeat claims that the businessman has been “interfering in the democracies of several European nations”.
Mr Verhofstadt told The Independent: “It’s sad to see far-right, Kremlin-sponsored conspiracy theories about George Soros ‘meddling’ in the internal affairs of countries now being rolled out by a mainstream UK newspaper.
“Viktor Orban and his illiberal friends, who are obsessed with demonising human rights and free speech advocates, would be proud.
“For decades, the UK has been a beacon and stalwart defender of liberal democratic principles within Europe and beyond and I hope this will continue.”
Mr Soros’s Open Society Foundations group says Mr Orban’s Hungarian government has employed “antisemitic tropes reminiscent of the 1930s” in its attacks, while Mr Soros himself has described them as “outright lies” and says he is used as “an outside enemy to distract citizens” from problems with the country.
Mr Timothy’s piece, meanwhile, repeated claims that Mr Soros had a hand in the downfall of Russian-backed regimes in both Georgia and Ukraine, and that he is behind an “ultra-liberal crusade” in Hungary.
Stephen Pollard, the editor of The Jewish Chronicle newspaper, was angered by claims Mr Soros is behind a “secret plot” to block Brexit.
He tweeted: “Telegraph story is disturbing because of the use of the idea it’s a ‘secret plot’.
“Soros is incredibly open about what he does. Say it’s wrong; fine. But idea it’s a secret plot is exactly the line being used in Hungary and elsewhere precisely because he is Jewish.”
He added that he did not believe Mr Timothy had an “antisemitic bone in his body” but that “language matters so much”.
Responding on social media, Mr Timothy said: “Throughout my career I’ve campaigned against anti-Semitism, helped secure more funding for security at synagogues and Jewish schools, fought to lift the cap on faith schools, and supported Israel.
“The accusations and insinuations against me are as absurd as they are offensive.”
A billboard and television advertising campaign launched by the Hungarian ruling party Fidesz featured advertisements with a large picture of Mr Soros, with “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh”, with some reportedly defaced with graffiti reading “stinking Jew”.
Mr Soros has long openly supported progressive and liberal campaigns, but Mr Orban has vowed to use Hungarian intelligence agencies to probe the “Soros machinery”.
At the regular briefing for journalists, Ms May’s spokesman declined to comment on the article written by her former chief-of-staff.
“There are obviously many political and campaign groups in this country – that’s entirely right and as you would expect in a democracy,” he said commenting on Best for Britain.
He said he had not discussed Mr Timothy’s article with the Prime Minister, adding: “I wouldn’t plan to do so.”
A Telegraph spokesperson said: “The Telegraph has a proud history of fighting anti-Semitism and any suggestion that our story about George Soros was in any way anti-Semitic is offensive and unfounded.”
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