Justin Cohen speaks to Conservative deputy chairman, Robert Halfon
What do you get the politician who seemingly has everything? “Help me find someone who can invent a twin brother because I desperately need one,” jokes Robert Halfon during the recent Tory party conference. “So I can be at two or three places at the same time.”
Such are the demands on the new deputy Tory chairman’s diary that no one could blame him if this was indeed his Chanukah wish, but everything about the 46-year-old’s track-record points to man who relishes both the opportunity to serve and a challenge.
It’s nearly a decade and a half since he entered Parliament in the then safe Labour seat of Harlow, cutting the majority by nearly a half, before going on to lose the next election by an agonising 97 votes. Fast forward fourteen years and he had extended his own majority to 8,000 and was bounding out of 10 Downing Street, having been appointed to David Cameron’s cabinet as minister without portfolio.
“I wouldn’t have believed in a million years then that one day I would be deputy chairman of the party and in the cabinet.” he told the Jewish News. “To be appointed deputy chair of the greatest political party in the world – that’s won more elections than any other – is a great honour.” His tireless campaigning for constituents and to keep fuel duty low caused him to stand out from his peers in the last Parliament; he has previously said that being born with a form of cerebral palsy turned him into a fighter.
And despite the election of the first majority Conservative Government since 1992, Halfon has no intention of resting on his laurels. “I was appointed to work under Lord Feldman because I’m a campaigning MP and I want to bring the things I love doing to the party as a whole and help us become a mass movement. My dream is that we are not just seen as the Government of the working people, which we’re beginning to be, but as the party for working people.”
Asked whether the rebranding as the party of working people would stick as austerity continues – “you might call it austerity, we call it putting our house in order” – he says: “We’ve created millions of jobs, introduced a national living wage, free childcare for 30 hours a week – who’d have imagined the Conservatives doing that. This is concrete stuff, it’s not spin or words. It’s making the party of working people a reality.” Labour’s lurch to the left, claims, provides a opportunity for the Tories to occupy the “common ground”.
Turning his attention to matters beyond these borders, Halfon insists he is proud to belong to a party that has been so strong in its support for Israel. He said: “David Cameron has been exceptional – particularly when it counted like during the Gaza war – it doesn’t mean he agrees with everything Israel does but he stood up when it counted. The Jewish community and the state of Israel are lucky to have such a great friend in the prime minister and in many members of the cabinet.”
While he said there were are people in the Labour party who understood the challenges faced by the Jewish state, he predicted that Israel would have a even tougher ride in the House of Commons this Parliament “because alot of people on the left are motivated by attacking Israel”. He also alleged that Jeremy Corbyn’s meetings with Hezbollah and Hamas showed he was “soft on terrorism and soft on the causes of terrorism”.
Turning his attention to the lran nuclear deal – which has attracted widespread condemnation including from Conservative Friends of Israel where he used to be political director – “I’m a member of the government and obviously I respect what Philip Hammond has done. The important thing is that if Iran doesn’t do what it says there is a snap back. We need to watch Iran like a hawk.” Asked if Philip Hammond had got it right when he spoke recently of the Iranian government’s “more nuanced” position towards Israel, he said the foreign secretary has “always been aware of Iranian hostility towards Israel”.
Halfon, whose grandfather was forced to flee Libya, also launched a passionate defense of the government’s “incredibly compassionate” response to the refugee crisis in the face of criticism that Britain should be taking in more of those fleeing conflict sooner. “I think Great Britain is the greatest country on earth because I believe it’s one of the most compassionate countries. We’ve already taken in 5,000 refugees, we’ve spent over one billion in the region and we’ve said we’re going to take 20,000 from the refugee camps on the border, the most vulnerable.”
On the domestic political scene, the election of Corbyn sent shockwaves through Westminster but does Halfon think he can remain in office until 2020? “This isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, it’s about the Labour party,” he warned. “If Corbyn went tomorrow, the way the party is structured, I’m sure they would elect somebody else from the far left.”
At the recent party conference in Manchester, the Harlow MP could barely move without activists wanting to offer their congratulations on his meteoric ascent. He spoke at no less than ten occasions on the first full day of the event. “We called it black Monday,” he said. “Not because it was bad but because there were a thousand things to do. Thank goodness for annadin and black coffee – probably the greatest inventions known to mankind.” And there’s likely to be plenty more of that required as he sets about trying to achieve his ambitious goals for party he first joined aged 14.