Michael Gove has refused to condemn Viktor Orban, as the Conservatives faced a backlash for opposing European condemnation of the controversial Hungarian prime minister.
Tory MEPs opposed a censure motion against Hungary in the European Parliament earlier this week after years of criticism that Mr Orban is anti-democratic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic.
Mr Gove said he had “views” about Mr Orban but was “not going to be drawn” into giving an assessment of individual leaders.
He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show he did not believe that “individual criticisms of the kind you are understandably tempting me to make necessarily help us in ensuring we get both solidarity on the issues that count and the best deal for Britain as we leave the European Union”.
MEPs voted overwhelmingly to back a report recommending action against the Hungarian government over its electoral system, media freedoms, independence of the judiciary, mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and limits on the functioning of non-governmental organisations.
Mr Gove said it was “not true” the Conservatives supported Mr Orban despite Tory MEPs opposing the measures.
“It’s a long-standing principle of a number of MEPs from different countries and from different parties not to believe that the European Parliament should interfere in or censure the internal democracy of a particular country,” he said.
Tory peer Lord Finkelstein, who is Jewish described the move by Conservative MEPs as “very distressing” and it was condemned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Britain.
This week the Board president Marie van der Zyl, “noted with disappointment” that Conservative Party MEPs have voted in defence of Hungary’s far-right government of Viktor Orban.
She 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.
“This whipping up of prejudice by the Hungarian government – alongside restrictions on press freedom and the independence of the judiciary – must be stopped before it undermines Hungary’s democracy irreversibly.
“It is very concerning that the Conservative Party MEPs chose to defend Hungary’s appalling track record, rather than supporting this motion to protect the rule of law.”
A source told the Press Association Mr Gove’s “instinct” was to be “critical” of Mr Orban.
Shadow Cabinet office minister Jon Trickett said: “Each week that passes shows the acceleration of extremist right wing tendencies in the Conservative Party.
“Today Michael Gove refused to condemn Viktor Orban who leads the Hungarian government’s pandering to antisemitism and Islamophobia, attacks on judicial and media independence and abhorrent treatment of refugees and minorities.
“It is shocking that Tory MEPs voted against censuring the reactionary Hungarian government and that Cabinet ministers are now choosing to support the Orban government’s authoritarian and anti-democratic practices.
“Theresa May should do what Gove failed to do and condemn the Hungarian government.”