LONDON — Theresa May has been on political death row since the moment two years ago that she spectacularly fumbled a general election which, at the outset of the campaign, had looked set to return her Conservative party with a landslide victory.
In a few short weeks, the British prime minister blew a 20-point opinion poll lead, squandered the parliamentary majority bequeathed by her predecessor David Cameron, and nearly succeeded in allowing the hard-left opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, into Downing Street.
May’s fate was finally sealed this week when her last attempt to convince parliament to pass her unpopular Brexit deal with the EU was shot down. She will formally resign as Conservative leader on June 7, she announced Friday in a tearful appearance outside 10 Downing Street, although she is likely to remain as a lame duck prime minister for a couple more months until her successor has been chosen.
The Conservative party will now embark on the tortuous process of selecting its next leader. This will entail a series of votes by the parliamentary party to whittle the number of candidates — more than a dozen Tory MPs are said to like their chances of becoming prime minister — down to two. Those two names will then be put to the 124,000 Conservative members across the country who will have the final say.
The favorite — for now
The members’ current favorite is the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. He is viewed by his critics as Britain’s answer to Donald Trump. A larger-than-life character, Johnson combines a colorful personal life with an outspokenness and courting of controversy which is rare at the top of British politics.
He’s lied his way through life, he’s lied his way through politics, he’s a huckster with a degree of charm to which I am immune
His enemies also charge Johnson with being unable to tell the truth. One former Tory cabinet minister this week bluntly declared: “He’s lied his way through life, he’s lied his way through politics, he’s a huckster with a degree of charm to which I am immune.”
However, if Johnson can persuade Tory MPs to put him through — those who know him best seem most resistant to his appeal — Johnson will almost certainly become Britain’s next prime minister.
Latest polls show that 39 percent of grassroots Tories want Johnson to be their next leader, way ahead of his nearest rival. Many Conservative MPs, though, dislike Johnson deeply, regarding him as nakedly ambitious and self-serving and viewing his two years as foreign secretary as a disaster.
But even some of those who hold Johnson in low regard may conclude that he represents their best chance of fending off the twin challenges posed by the hard-right populist Nigel Farage and the far-left Corbyn.
This gamble on Johnson’s electoral appeal rests on his two terms as London mayor. The fact that London – a Labour stronghold – twice sent Johnson to City Hall, believe many Tories, shows that he is able to attract those who do not traditionally vote Conservative.
The eight years that Johnson spent running the capital means that he’s a known quantity as far as many British Jews are concerned (roughly 60% of the community lives in Greater London). His bond with the community during this time was forged in mutual antipathy to Ken Livingstone, the mayor who Johnson booted from office in 2008 and defeated again in 2012 when the pair engaged in a closely fought rematch.
Even before he began making bizarre pronouncements about Hitler’s supposed affinity for Zionism, Livingstone had a toxic reputation among many Jews. When Johnson won in 2008, Livingstone’s former deputy mayor accurately suggested that a Jewish backlash had made a significant contribution to his defeat. Four years later, Jews once again appeared to play a critical role in ensuring Johnson emerged victorious.
Johnson’s campaign received significant backing from Jewish donors, while a number of Jews were given key roles in City Hall. From his shofar-blowing and regular appearances at fundraisers for Jewish charities, the mayor ushered in a far more harmonious, less fractious relationship between Jews and the capital’s administration than had existed under “Red Ken.”
More substantively, Johnson signed London up to the international Mayors United Against Antisemitism initiative and demonstrated his intolerance of the BDS movement by intervening in a row over a controversial sponsorship deal between Transport for London and Emirates Airline.
Johnson’s Jewish history
Johnson’s ease with the community is unsurprising. Although he is an Anglican, his maternal great-grandfather was a rabbi from Lithuania. Johnson also has a connection to one of Britain’s leading Jewish families: his father’s second wife, Jenny, is the stepdaughter of Edward Sieff, the philanthropist and former chairman of retail giant Marks & Spencer. (Johnson also has Muslim ancestry: his great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was the last interior minister of the Ottoman empire after World War I).
It was, though, thanks to the Sieff family’s connections to Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi that Johnson and his sister spent a summer in Israel while he was studying at Oxford University. According to Rachel Johnson, the experience didn’t entirely suit her brother’s temperament. “Boris’s memories aren’t quite as fond as mine,” she told one newspaper in 2013, noting that his work assignment in the “searingly hot” kibbutz kitchen was “brutal.”
Despite the Conservative politician’s perhaps not unnatural aversion to collective living, he nonetheless appears to be a strong supporter of the Jewish state. During his final months as mayor, Johnson visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah. He was reportedly visibly distressed during his visit to Yad Vashem, afterwards describing it as “an incredibly emotional experience.”
For much of the trip, Johnson loyally stuck to the British government’s line of supporting a two-state solution – using a speech in honor of his hero, Winston Churchill, to both flatter Israel and show empathy for the Palestinians. He noted that the Jewish state and Churchill shared certain qualities — “daring, audacity, derring-do and indomitability.”
At the same time, he also recalled that Churchill had told Jewish audiences they had “the chance to create a land flowing with milk and honey,” but warned that “every step that you take must therefore be for the moral and material benefit of all Palestinians.” “I think today we have to admit that the present situation does not entirely accord with that Churchillian vision — not yet,” Johnson argued.
However, it was the ensuing row over the BDS movement which captured the headlines back home. After saying that he could “not think of anything more foolish” than BDS (noting that Israel was “the only democracy in the region — the only place that has, in my view, a pluralist, open society”), he went on to describe its leaders, in typical Johnson style, as “ridiculous, snaggle-toothed corduroy-wearing lefty academics.” As a result, most of the mayor’s planned meetings in Ramallah ended up being cancelled.
When he returned to Israel 18 months later as May’s foreign secretary, it was a more diplomatic – some might say, dull – Johnson that was on display. However, on his watch, Britain began to take a more robust stance against Israel’s international critics, with the foreign secretary lashing the “preposterous” and “absurd” focus of the UN Human Rights Council on the Jewish state, and labeling it “disproportionate and damaging to the cause of peace.”
But many Jews appear to harbor a distrust of Johnson. In 2016, he toyed with, and then abandoned, a bid for the Tory leadership in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Polls at the time showed only one in five Jews favored the former London mayor, half the number who opted for the eventual winner, Theresa May.
Those results reflected both Johnson’s prominence in the campaign to leave the EU and Jewish unease about Brexit. While the country as a whole voted by 52-48 percent for Brexit, Jews backed remaining by a margin of 59-31 percent.
It is Johnson’s unpredictability rather than the likelihood that he would drive Britain to the far right that is likely to most worry many in the Jewish community
Johnson’s role as head of the Vote Leave campaign, with its focus on immigration and appeal to older, more conservative Britons, demonstrates why the former foreign secretary has earned a reputation as a political chameleon. In a few short months, his image was transformed from that of a colorful cosmopolitan advancing a socially liberal agenda as mayor of London, to the hero of hardline Brexiteers. (Johnson maintains that Brexit is a liberal project opening up Britain to the world beyond the EU, and he remains a strong supporter of immigration).
Johnson’s subsequent actions have done little to assuage liberal Britons. Last year, he came under heavy attack from Jewish community leaders after he described Muslim women wearing burkas as looking “absolutely ridiculous” and like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” The Jewish Leadership Council said Johnson’s words were “utterly disgraceful,” while a leading rabbi accused him of “racism with a smile.” The Jewish Chronicle compared the former foreign secretary to a “bar-room bigot.”
Johnson’s meeting last summer with Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and leading proponent of the “alt-right,” also drew sharp criticism.
However, it is Johnson’s unpredictability rather than the likelihood that he would drive Britain to the far right that is likely to most worry many in the Jewish community. This trait was, for instance, evident in 2014 when — in sharp contrast to then prime minister David Cameron — Johnson suddenly attacked Israel during the 2014 Gaza war, also known as Operation Protective Edge, saying Israel’s actions were “disproportionate and tragic.”
Furthermore, Johnson’s reputation as an election-winner has not been tested since his role in the referendum. Polls now suggest that only 28% of voters believe that he would make a good prime minister.
As The Times columnist Rachel Sylvester wrote this week: “He is still seen as an election winner by some Conservatives because he was twice elected as London mayor, but since the EU referendum he has gone from being a Heineken politician, who can reach the parts others cannot, to a Marmite candidate who is loathed at least as much as he is loved.”
The unpopular Johnson’s election might thus open the door to a Corbyn premiership. Alternatively, the prospect of a choice between Corbyn and Johnson at a general election might reinvigorate efforts to establish some form of center party that might upend the political landscape.
The rest of the pack
Many other potential Tory contenders remain something of a blank sheet with regards to their relations with the community and views on Israel. Johnson’s successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, also looks set to run. He came to the Foreign Office last summer appearing to be rather more critical of Israel than many other senior Tories.
However, he seems to have adopted a far warmer approach over the past year. In January, he delivered a speech to Conservative Friends of Israel in which he spoke of his “admiration” for the Jewish state and said its right to defend itself was “absolutely unconditional.” He also described Britain’s 1939 cap on Jewish immigration to Palestine as one of the “black moments” in the country’s history.
Johnson may find himself competing for the vote of Brexiteers with Dominic Raab, a right-wing young former minister whose Jewish father came to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1938. Raab was, however, raised in the Church of England. He knows the Middle East well, having once worked for the Foreign Office and advised on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 1998, he also spent time at Birzeit University working for one of the principal Palestinian negotiators of the Oslo Peace Accords.
In a powerful speech to the Tory party conference last autumn he invoked his Jewish ancestry to attack Corbyn over claims of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
“I say to Labour: You’d be surprised how many British people take this personally,” he argued. He went on to accuse the party of “intimidation, fanaticism, and scapegoating, especially against Jews.”
But two other likely runners – Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Sajid Javid – are the most avowedly pro-Israel in the field.
Javid, the first Muslim to hold one of the UK’s three great offices of state, is a longstanding ally of the Jewish community. The son of Pakistani immigrants, he is a self-made millionaire and has risen rapidly through the Tory ranks since becoming an MP in 2010.
Two years after becoming an MP, Javid stole the show at the Conservative Friends of Israel Annual Lunch when he delivered a passionate paean to the Jewish state.
“I am a proud, British-born Muslim, and I love my country more than any other place on earth,” he began, before declaring that, if he had to go and live in the Middle East, he would not choose Dubai, with “its vibrant city life and soaring skyscrapers,” nor Saudi Arabia, “a fabulously wealthy nation and the birthplace of the holy Prophet Muhammad.”
[Israel is] the only nation in the Middle East where my family would feel the warm embrace of freedom and liberty
“There is only one place I could possibly go,” he continued, “[to] Israel. The only nation in the Middle East that shares the same democratic values as Britain. And the only nation in the Middle East where my family would feel the warm embrace of freedom and liberty.”
“For a British Muslim, this was an extraordinary and courageous intervention in the world of Israel advocacy,” noted the Jewish Chronicle’s political editor.
Nor was that a one-off: Javid has subsequently mocked those who suggested Britain should apologize to the Palestinians for the Balfour Declaration by saying, “Here in Britain we will not merely mark the centenary, we will celebrate it with pride.”
Javid also used his previous ministerial posts at the Culture, Business and Communities departments to frustrate the BDS movement. It’s no coincidence that the battle to ensure the UK banned both Hezbollah’s military and political wings (only the former was previously proscribed) was successfully concluded on his watch at the Home Office.
Javid has also drawn on his own experience of racism to attack the Labour Party on anti-Semitism. His condemnation of “dinner party anti-Semites” who “can’t condemn the murder of Jewish children in France without a caveat criticizing the Israeli government” and calls for people to challenge anti-Jewish hatred — “ultimately, we have to be prepared to do that most un-British of things; we have to make a scene” — have earned him plaudits from leading communal figures.
A special friend
In his admiration for Israel and closeness to the Jewish community, Javid is probably surpassed only by Gove. A one-time close ally of Cameron, the Environment Secretary was — alongside Johnson — another leading light in the Brexit campaign. However, while he has a reputation for ruthlessness — his attack on his erstwhile ally sunk Johnson’s leadership hopes in 2016 and was described as “the most spectacular political assassination in a generation” — few would regard him as an opportunist.
Certainly, his support for Israel and British Jewry has been consistently strong and outspoken. As Daniel Finkelstein, a Jewish Tory member of the House of Lords, and political commentator, wrote when Gove was appointed to the cabinet in 2010: “It is hard to find in modern politics a politician as friendly to the Jewish community as Michael Gove.”
Gove has lived up to that billing over the past nine years. His repeated warnings about the threat of anti-Semitism — delivered long before Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership — underline that he doesn’t view the subject as cause for party political point-scoring.
In 2014, for instance, he described anti-Semitism as a “resurgent, mutating, lethal virus” to the Holocaust Education Trust (with which, as Education Secretary, he developed a close relationship), explicitly linking its rise in the UK to the BDS movement.
Last year, he delivered a rousing speech to the Tory conference in which he pledged the party’s “unshakable solidarity with the Jewish community.” Attacking Corbyn, he declared: “When our Jewish friends and neighbors live in fear for their futures, let us stand with them.”
Gove said he would defend Israel’s right to exist ‘as long as I have breath in my body’
Gove has also proved to be, as the Jewish Chronicle once put it, “the most ardent Zionist in the government.” The Environment Secretary marked the Jewish state’s 70th anniversary last year, for instance, by labeling Israel “an inspiration.”
“It shows that the human spirit can achieve amazing things against incredible odds. The Jewish people after millennia of persecution built a home while surrounded by enemies and made that home a beacon of liberty,” he wrote.
He has also attacked the “dark and furious energy” of anti-Israel activism and said Israel’s enemies wanted “not a smaller Israel, but no Israel at all.” Such is his commitment to the Jewish state that, in 2012, he told a Board of Deputies dinner that he had taken up learning Hebrew.
In a remarkable speech in 2011, Gove said he would defend Israel’s right to exist “as long as I have breath in my body,” labeling support for the Jewish state “a moral test for us all.”
He then launched a ferocious attack on Israel’s critics: “I’m forced to ask certain questions. Why is it that in the cries for compensation and Palestinian right of return, there’s no demand for compensation for Jews driven out of Aleppo or Alexandria? Why is it that a viable Palestinian state can only exist in the eyes of so many when it is purged of its Jewish citizens, of their homes?”
A British prime minister with such a mindset would not just continue the friendly attitude towards Israel of the Cameron and May governments. In Downing Street, Gove would likely reorient British foreign policy, making the UK Israel’s closest European ally and defender, and her enemies’ bitterest opponent.