Downing Street has privately told Conservative MEPs to distance themselves from Viktor Orban after they provoked outrage by voting in support of Hungary's authoritarian right-wing government on Wednesday.
WhatsApp messages leaked to BuzzFeed News reveal Number 10 intervened following intense criticism of Tory MEPs who voted to oppose measures against the Hungarian government in the European parliament. MEPs were instructed to share a tweet stating they do not support Orban and warned not to comment further on the matter.
The parliament in Strasbourg voted 448-197 in favour of launching disciplinary action against Hungary, after Orban's government was accused of attacks on the media, minorities, and the rule of law. Orban has been criticised for his rhetoric about "Muslim invaders" and calling migrants "poison".
Yet the Conservatives whipped their MEPs to oppose action against the Hungarian government. They were the only governing conservative party in western Europe to vote against the motion.
Labour said Theresa May had been "caught desperately trying to cover up that shameful decision".
The vote sparked a furious response from Jewish and Muslim groups in the UK. Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “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.”
The Muslim Council of Britain added: "The Conservative Party has thus far resisted calls to have an inquiry into Islamophobia amongst its ranks. This latest action raises further concerns of bigotry in the party".
BuzzFeed News understands that during a meeting of the Conservative delegation of MEPs, where they were whipped to vote against the motion, some Tory MEPs raised concerns that the party had failed to give a formal assurance that their vote was not an endorsement of Orban. A Tory source with knowledge of the meeting said: "I suspect there are many reasons for this, including securing Hungary's support on Brexit."
Asked about Tory MEPs being whipped to back Hungary's government, a Downing Street spokesman said yesterday: "We weren't consulted in advance."
BuzzFeed News has seen messages sent in the Conservative MEPs' WhatsApp group today which show Downing Street has subsequently attempted to launch a clean-up operation. Number 10 is said to have ordered the Tories' European parliament chief whip Daniel Dalton to send a tweet distancing their MEPs from Orban.
A message from Ashley Fox, the leader of the Conservative party in the European parliament, said: "Downing Street have asked Dan D to tweet that our vote on Art 7 does not imply support for Orban." Fox ordered Tory MEPs to retweet the tweet and then stay silent on the matter: "Can I ask all members to retweet DD without further comment."
Following the order, Dalton tweeted:
A Tory source familiar with the situation said: "Number 10 only jumped on to this very late after Labour got involved. They had their eye off the ball and now MEPs who might privately support Orban have been ordered not to comment."
Labour's shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told BuzzFeed News: "Yesterday, Theresa May's MEPs backed Viktor Orban's Hungarian government, despite its attacks on political freedom, equality, the rule of law, and the human rights of migrants, and now she has been caught desperately trying to cover up that shameful decision."
"But it will not work," she added. "The Tories have shown their true colours by being the only governing conservative party in western Europe to back Orban's government, and Theresa May cannot hide that truth or wish it away. Instead, she should apologise, and guarantee that if this issue comes before the European Council she will reverse their position."
A government source said: "This was simply a suggestion to help clarify the reason for this particular vote".
In a tweet shared after this story went live, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: "The Tories brought shame on the UK by backing Hungary's far right government in a crucial vote in Europe. @theresa_may trying to sweep it under the carpet is disgraceful.
"The Prime Minister must apologise and explain why her Party voted in the way it did."