LONDON — As the United Kingdom nears the final stretch of what is shaping up to be one of its most fateful general elections since WW II, all eyes are on the leaders of its two main parties: Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn of Labour.
Except, perhaps, the eyes of Hugh Grant fans in North London — at least on Sunday, Dec. 1.
Dozens of residents of this heavily Jewish part of the British capital received a house visit from the 59-year-old British actor, who is known primarily for starring in an array of romantic comedies.
Grant was knocking on doors along with Luciana Berger, a Jewish politician who left Labour over its years-long anti-Semitism controversy and is running for Parliament on the ticket of the Liberal Democrats — a center-left party that strongly opposes Brexit.
Polls project the party to fetch 10-15% of the vote, well behind Labour’s 35% and the Conservatives’ 42%.
“You may be wondering why I’m here. I wish I could tell you it’s because I’m a passionate Lib Dem. I’m not that, I’ve never been a supporter or member of any party,” Grant said at a town hall meeting in Finchley, an area of the London Borough of Barnet, which has more than 80 synagogues.
But he was compelled to hit the Liberal Democrats’ campaign trail ahead of the Dec. 12 elections because of its robust opposition to Brexit, Grant said in the meeting, which the Daily Mail reported on Sunday. Johnson’s Conservative Party is committed to getting Brexit done, with or without a trade deal with the EU.
Labour, under its far-left leader Corbyn, has been noncommittal on the subject, which has divided its more centrist constituents.
The stakes are high for the United Kingdom, whose economy may suffer badly if it leaves the EU’s common market without reaching a satisfactory deal.
Grant said he was impressed by Berger, who left Labour in February amid a campaign of harassment that was rife with anti-Semitic hate speech.
“I’ve admired her for some time,” Grant said of Berger at the town hall meeting. “I would say there are not many MPs in this day and age who would [leave] a majority of 29,000 in one constituency and come to a constituency which is quite marginal. I’m here to just say ‘Go Luciana!’ The country applauds you.”
Grant was referring to Berger’s decision in September to leave her constituency in Leeds, where she was virtually guaranteed to win a seat on Labour’s ticket, and run for Parliament as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Finchley and Golders Green — perhaps the most heavily Jewish constituency in Britain.
Berger, 38, is something of a hero to many British Jews and a household name in community circles, but it’s still a gamble. Even in Finchley and Golders Green, Jews make up only a fifth of the voters, according to an article last week about Berger in the Financial Times.
Her new party performed there dismally in the 2017 elections, getting only 3,463 votes to 24,599 for the Conservative candidate and 22,942 for the Labour hopeful.
But staying in Labour was not an option for Berger, she told the PA news agency last week.
“I did everything within my power to try and change things: I had meetings, I put forward motions, I spoke out in the press when some very ugly things surfaced,” she said of the proliferation of anti-Semitic hate speech under Corbyn.
“Not only did it not get any better, but it got worse and there has to come a moment when you say enough really is enough.”
Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, Britain’s chief rabbi warned that the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism problem means that the “very soul of our nation is at stake.”
Ephraim Mirvis made his intervention, which is an unusual foray into partisan politics for a chief rabbi, on Nov. 26 in a column published in the online edition of the Times of London.
“It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote,” Mirvis wrote, adding: “I regret being in this situation at all.”
But in the column, he listed anti-Semitism scandals involving only Labour and its leader since 2015, the far-left politician Jeremy Corbyn.
“Many members of the Jewish community can hardly believe that this is the same party that they proudly called their political home for more than a century. It can no longer claim to be the party of diversity, equality and anti-racism. This is the Labour Party in name only,” he wrote.
Mirvis then wondered “how complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s opposition have to be in order to be considered unfit for high office,” adding: “Would associations with those who have openly incited hatred against Jews be enough? Would support for a racist mural, depicting powerful hook-nosed Jews supposedly getting rich at the expense of the weak and downtrodden be enough? Would describing as ‘friends’ those who endorse and even perpetrate the murder of Jews be enough? It seems not.”
Come the December 12 election, “the very soul of our nation is at stake,” he wrote.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England, and the Muslim Council of Britain expressed sympathy for the Jewish communities’ sentiments as expressed by Mirvis.
His column “highlights the real fear many British Jews have, regarding the unacceptable presence of anti-semitism in Britain and in politics today,” the Muslim Council wrote in a statement, in which it reiterated its concerns about alleged anti-Muslim sentiment expressed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his right-leaning Conservative Party.
The archbishop, Justin Wells, wrote on Twitter that the fact that Mirvis “should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.”
Corbyn in 2013 defended a mural depicting Jewish men playing monopoly on the backs of dark-skinned men.
In 2014, he laid a wreath on a monument commemorating Palestinian terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
He called Hamas and Hezbollah his friends in 2009.
Under Corbyn, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel vitriol proliferated in Laour’s ranks, prompting the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a government watchdog, to launch its first inquiry into the handling of racism in any mainstream British party.
Corbyn has denied harboring or encouraging any anti-Semitic bias.
Amanda Bowman, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said Mirvis’ call is unprecedented, adding that it is “sadly reflective of how many British Jews feel.”
They are “fearful that if Labour has allowed antisemitism to take hold in this way while in opposition, that things will become worse if they are in government,” she wrote in a statement Tuesday.