Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed in on British politics during a closed-door meeting with Jewish leaders, saying he would not wait for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister of Britain to “push back” against him or any future actions he might take against Britain’s Jews.
Pompeo also criticized Britain’s Conservative Party leaders, saying the heavy losses they suffered during the European Parliament elections demonstrated “an absolute failure of leadership.”
The remarks, which are contained in audio of a private meeting leaked to The Washington Post, make Pompeo the second senior U.S. official to comment on Britain’s turbulent leadership succession in the past week.
During his meeting with Jewish leaders in New York, Pompeo was asked if Corbyn “is elected, would you be willing to work with us to take on actions if life becomes very difficult for Jews in the U.K.?”
In response, Pompeo said, “It could be that Mr. Corbyn manages to run the gantlet and get elected. It’s possible. You should know, we won’t wait for him to do those things to begin to push back. We will do our level best,” he said to fervent applause from attendees.
“It’s too risky and too important and too hard once it’s already happened,” he said.
Corbyn has been criticized for being slow to address allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. In February, nine Labour members of Parliament quit the party, with some citing the leadership’s failure in handling anti-Semitism issues.
Last month, Britain’s watchdog Equality and Human Rights Commission said it would be launching a formal probe into whether Labour “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish.” The party said it would fully cooperate with the investigation.
Defenders of Corbyn say the charges of anti-Semitism are politically motivated and stem from his long-standing support of Palestinian rights and criticism of Israeli government policies and Western imperialism.
In a statement to The Post, a Labour spokesman said the party is “fully committed to the support, defence and celebration of the Jewish community and is implacably opposed to antisemitism in any form.”
The spokesman also hit back at what the party views as Pompeo’s improper intervention in Britain’s democratic process. “President Trump and his officials’ attempts to decide who will be Britain’s next prime minister are an entirely unacceptable interference in the UK’s democracy,” said the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Pompeo’s private comments.
The publication of the remarks by Pompeo, which occurred during an off-the-record meeting, follow the public statements by Trump last week, speaking favorably of prime-ministerial contender Boris Johnson and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.
“I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent,” Trump told Britain’s Sun newspaper.
The remarks prompted a strong response from Corbyn, who said Trump’s intervention was “unacceptable.”
“The next prime minister should be chosen not by the U.S. president, nor by 100,000 unrepresentative Conservative Party members, but by the British people in a general election,” he said.
During his trip to Britain, Trump also met with Farage, a vocal skeptic of Prime Minister Theresa May whose Brexit Party’s success during the European Parliament elections came at the expense of May’s Conservative Party. “Nigel’s had a big victory,” Trump said. “He picked up 32 percent of the vote starting from nothing, and I think they’re big powers over there. I think they’ve done a good job.”
Pompeo also addressed those elections in his private meeting, saying the Conservative Party’s losses were stunning. “The Tories finished fifth in Britain. If I had told you that even 90 days ago, you’d have laughed me out of here, and you’d have done so properly,” Pompeo said. “This is an absolute failure of leadership to demonstrate value.”
A Conservative Party spokesman declined to comment.
Jeremy Shapiro, the director of research for the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the remarks by the president and Pompeo put Britain’s conservatives in a difficult position given the unpopularity of Trump in Britain.
“This is a trap for Johnson or some other future Tory leader,” Shapiro said. “The combination of Trump’s public support for Johnson and Pompeo’s behind-closed-doors attack on their main opposition leader risks creating the idea in the mind of the public that the Tories are American poodles, which will not serve them well in a future general election.”
John Hudson is a national security reporter at the Washington Post covering the State Department and diplomacy.