Labour’s leadership battle descended into acrimony as Jeremy Corbyn came under renewed criticism and one of his key allies was accused of calling voters “stupid”.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who is believed to be eyeing a bid to succeed Mr Corbyn, was forced to deny the “total and utter lie” on Sunday and was understood to be consulting lawyers.
Caroline Flint, who lost her seat in the former stronghold of Don Valley during the catastrophic election for Labour, claimed Ms Thornberry had told a colleague: “I’m glad my constituents aren’t as stupid as yours.”
Worst result since 1935
The row came as shadow chancellor John McDonnell tried to take the flak for the defeat, saying “I own this disaster”, and as Mr Corbyn also apologised for Labour’s worst result since 1935.
The race to succeed the leader was in full swing, with potential candidates testing the waters while senior figures in the current leadership gave their backing to shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby reportedly wrote to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee recommending the contest starts on January 7, with the view of having a new leader by the end of March.
But Mr Corbyn was also coming under fire in the fallout of the major losses across the North and Midlands as the post-mortem examination got under way.
Ms Flint criticised “ardent Remainers” including Ms Thornberry and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, for having “contributed to sacrificing 59 seats” during Thursday’s election.
She told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “Keir Starmer led us to a policy that did not listen to Labour Leave voices who urged caution, he led us down the path of a second referendum, and I’m afraid Emily Thornberry did as well – she said to one of my colleagues, ‘I’m glad my constituents aren’t as stupid as yours’.”
Ms Thornberry, the Islington South and Finsbury MP, said the quote attributed to her “is a total and utter lie”.
“I’ve never said that to anyone, nor anything like it, nor would I ever think it,” she added.
“Whatever our differences, let’s not sink into that gutter.”
“We need a northern voice”
Mr McDonnell sought to shield the current administration, saying “if anyone’s to blame, it’s me, full stop”.
He also cited Brexit and the media for having “demonised” the Labour leader during an interview with the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.
Mr McDonnell said the next leader should be a woman – which would make her the first to lead the party – and said it was “most probably time for a non-metropolitan” candidate as he said “we need a northern voice”.
He tipped Ms Long-Bailey as having the ability to be “a brilliant leader”. She also received the support of shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon.
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, a former shadow energy secretary, told Marr that she is “seriously thinking” about running for the leadership.
Conceding it is a “very hard road” to regain the trust of Labour voters in towns across the North, she called for the party’s decision-making structures to move out of the capital.
“Our Labour headquarters, in my view, should move out of London, our regional offices should be empowered to take real decisions, we should move our party conferences back to towns as well as cities,” she said.
Ms Nandy said it is “undoubtedly true” that Mr Corbyn is to blame for the devastating defeat, but said it was not a rejection of the ideas in the Labour manifesto.
We have to make it our mission to bring Labour back to people – to bring Labour home. pic.twitter.com/K9stvATajH— Lisa Nandy (@lisanandy) December 15, 2019
Backbencher and Corbyn-critic Jess Phillips wrote a column in The Observer newspaper which was being seen as a potential pitch for a leadership challenge, though she is yet to throw her hat into the ring.
Challenge and debate
The MP for Birmingham Yardley, a Leave-backing constituency, said Labour was facing an “existential problem” that working-class voters do not believe the party is “better than the Tories”.
“It’s time to try something different,” she wrote. “The truth is, there are corners of our party that have become too intolerant of challenge and debate.”
Our members are not to be ignored. They're also not stupid & can see how stitch ups have worked of late. The truth is that any stitch up of rules to be anything other than truly open will make the membership reject the favoured son/daughter. Let's just do the right thing for once https://t.co/z5EsTfJ37A— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) December 14, 2019
Mr Corbyn had written in an open letter that “I take my responsibility” for the loss and apologised, but had come under fire for an unrepentant tone on the night of the defeat.
“I will make no bones about it. The result was a body blow for everyone who so desperately needs real change in our country,” he wrote to the Sunday Mirror.
Mr Corbyn said he will stand down in the early part of next year after overseeing a “process of reflection” within the party.