Politician Rory Stewart, campaigning hard as an independent candidate for Mayor of London, has made a London Jewish Forum encounter his last public meeting as the implications of the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Speaking to a small audience at JW3, the former government minister, accompanied by his wife Shoshana, refused to spend more than 10 minutes in an indoor meeting room — even though doors and windows were opened — and asked those who wanted to continue the conversation to move outside into the cold March sunshine.
Mr Stewart, the former MP for Penrith and prisons minister, said the way Britain — and London — dealt with the virus “will completely redefine our lives”. He could guarantee, he said, “that in two weeks’ time we will be talking about nothing else”, but nevertheless identified other issues which would drive the London mayoralty forward.
One such issue was Brexit and how it was enacted; but Mr Stewart spoke specifically about public health, street safety, transport, and affordable housing. He repeatedly attacked the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, for his failure in each of these areas, accusing him of taking poor or no decisions in many instances. In the area of public health, Mr Stewart said, “all major gatherings should be banned, and particularly the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day parade should be cancelled”.
He made a number of pledges — including tripling the police presence on London streets and halving the number of rough sleepers in the capital. He also said he would do his best to co-ordinate roadworks so that streets were not endlessly dug up and repaired by different utility companies, observing that the mayors of other world cities had this under control. As an admirer of JW3 and what it has to offer, Mr Stewart said he would like “a mini-JW3 in every ward in London”, providing cultural facilities and a local community centre all over the city.
Mr Stewart acknowledged, in answer to a Jewish News question, that Sadiq Khan was one of the few Labour politicians with whom the Jewish community felt comfortable. “I think you’re right: I have many criticisms of the mayor, but that is not one of my criticisms. I criticise him because he has an £18 billion budget and he doesn’t do anything. So for the Jewish community, and for any other community, the first thing I would offer is safety. He can talk as nicely as he likes, but he is in charge of the Metropolitan Police and the fact is that 100 police stations have been closed, we’ve gone from having six police offers per ward to only two or three, and often only one in practice — that must be restored and crime must be brought down. I also think he is being extremely irresponsible over the coronavirus. I don’t criticise him for his values, I criticise him for not getting on and doing things”.
If elected, Mr Stewart said, he would be “delighted” to lead a business delegation to Israel. He told Jewish News that he was “emotionally connected” to the Jewish community and revealed that he was in favour of a crowd-funded transport link between the two major Jewish hubs of Stamford Hill and Golders Green.
And, though he demurred at picking a winner for Labour leader, Mr Stewart surprised some with his assessment that the likely front-runner, Sir Keir Starmer, was “a little boring”.
The breakfast briefing took place under the auspices of London Jewish Forum, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and JW3. Jewish News was the event’s media sponsor.