Tory MEPs ordered to distance themselves from Hungary's far-right Viktor Orban after vote controversy

Religious groups accused the party of 'giving bigotry a free pass' in European Parliament vote

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Friday 14 September 2018 11:59 BST
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'We would like to have a fair Brexit because we love the British,' says Hungary PM Viktor Orbán

Downing Street tried to contain the fallout after Conservative MEPs drew controversy for backing authoritarian Hungarian leader Viktor Orban in a key vote, leaked messages suggest.

The Tories were the only governing conservative party in Western Europe to vote overwhelmingly in support of Mr Orban’s far-right government, which has been accused of attacking press freedom and minorities, and undermining judicial independence.

Religious groups have accused the Conservatives of “giving bigotry a free pass” and prioritising support for their Brexit plans over the rights of minorities by whipping their 19 MEPs to oppose a censure motion against Hungary in the European Parliament on Wednesday.

The motion passed with a two-thirds majority, 448–197, to start the 'Article 7' process, which could eventually see Hungary stripped of its voting rights on the European Council.

Number 10 intervened amidst furious criticism by privately asking MEPs to share a tweet distancing themselves from the populist leader, according to Whatsapp messages obtained by Buzzfeed News.

Ashley Fox, who leads the Conservatives in the European Parliament group, sent a message to the MEPs WhatsApp group, saying Downing Street had ordered the party's European chief whip Daniel Dalton to send a tweet distancing their MEPs from Orban.

The message said: "Downing Street have asked Dan D [Daniel Dalton] to tweet that our vote on Art 7 does not imply support for Orban."

Mr Fox added: "Can I ask all members to retweet DD without further comment."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said any attempts to play down support for Mr Orban after the vote were "disgraceful" and called on Theresa May to apologise.

He posted on Twitter: "The Tories brought shame on the UK by backing Hungary's far right government in a crucial vote in Europe.

"Theresa May trying to sweep it under the carpet is disgraceful.

"The prime minister must apologise and explain why her party voted in the way it did."

His comments came after the Muslim Council of Britain said the incident raised fresh concerns about “bigotry in the party”, as the organisation has repeatedly demanded an inquiry into allegations of Islamophobia in Conservative ranks.

Secretary general Harun Khan said: “At a time when there are growing concerns about the rise of the far-right across Europe, it is deeply disappointing that Conservative Party MEPs were whipped to align themselves with far-right parties in supporting Mr Orban.

“One can only hope that the rights of Muslims and other minorities are not considered expendable as support is sought for the government’s Brexit position, as appears to have been the case with this vote.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said it was “very concerning” that the Conservatives had opted to defend Mr Orban's “appalling track record”, which they claimed included “vivid antisemitism” and Islamophobia.

President Marie van der Zyl said: “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 antisemitism in the relentless campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.”

Of the Tory MEPs, Nosheena Mobarik rebelled to vote for the motion, while two others, Charles Tannock and Sajjad Karim, abstained.

A government source said: "This was simply a suggestion to help clarify the reason for this particular vote".

Downing Street previously denied that any support had been given to Mr Orban in exchange for backing in the Brexit talks.

Ms May's spokesman said on Wednesday: “The outcome was the result of a democratic vote in the European parliament and is now a matter for the European Council.

“We await the process going forward which is to be set out by the Austrian presidency.

“We place great values on the importance of the rule of law. We hope a resolution can be found that respects a nation’s right to set its own constitutional arrangements within the framework of international norms.”

A Conservative spokesman said: “Victor Orban has a track record of responding to legal moves not political threats.

“Politicising the issue at this early stage simply undermines any future legal action, while boosting Orban's domestic support.”

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