A Tory peer has “set the record straight” after taking part in a conference in Hungary which featured a far-right journalist accused of antisemitism.
Lord Wharton of Yarm, chairman of the Office for Students (OfS), was criticised by Jewish students for sending a video message to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Hungary.
In the clip, he endorsed the re-election of the country’s Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who is considered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest EU ally.
Mr Orban’s government has been accused of eroding democratic freedoms in Hungary since taking power in 2010.
His populist Fidesz party won a fourth straight election victory on April 3, giving him an additional four-year term.
In his message to the conference, Lord Wharton said “Conservative ideas, the ideas of the centre-right, the belief in the individual… those ideas can be as popular today as they were in the past and they are perhaps more important today than they have ever been”.
“It’s events like CPAC Hungary that allow those of us who share those views, who share common beliefs, to come together to meet old friends and to make new ones, to share ideas,” he said.
The conference was addressed on the same day by right-wing journalist Zsolt Bayer, who has referred to Jews as “stinking excrement” and referred to Roma as “animals”.
On Monday, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said: “We are concerned by this issue and have contacted Lord Wharton to seek urgent clarification due to the impact this could have on Jewish students.”
On Thursday, Lord Wharton wrote to OfS staff after meeting with UJS representatives.
He wrote: “I recognise that some of you may have concerns about reports of my appearance at the US Republican Party CPAC conference in Hungary recently.
“I want to set the record straight about my position.”
He said he “didn’t know that Zsolt Bayer, who has expressed racist and antisemitic views, was also speaking at the event”.
“Even if I had known, I had never heard of him. It goes without saying that I have no time for racist or antisemitic views of any kind and whatever he might hold as his views certainly do not reflect mine,” he said.
He said he had an “extremely positive” meeting with the UJS and will “continue to ensure the OfS is at the forefront of tackling racism and antisemitism”.
“I hope you will all accept that same reassurance and my ongoing commitment to supporting free speech and academic freedoms,” he wrote.
Mr Wharton’s letter did not mention his message of support for Mr Orban.
A UJS spokesman said: “Yesterday, UJS met with Lord Wharton, chair of the OfS, following his video message to CPAC.
“He apologised for any concern this had caused Jewish students.
“He reaffirmed OfS’s dedication to tackling antisemitism.
“UJS were reassured by his commitment to future engagement and the sincerity of his apology and hope to continue to work together to support Jewish students.”
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