John McDonnell has been accused of “backtracking” on saying Labour should officially split instead of Jeremy Corbyn standing down as leader.
The shadow chancellor was criticised by two MPs who claim he said it would be better for Labour rebels to splinter and form their own party than for Corbyn to resign.
Amid mounting pressure on the leader, who will face a formal challenge by former shadow business secretary Angela Eagle on Monday, an argument about McDonnell’s position spilled on to Twitter.
Labour MP Owen Smith alleged that he asked Corbyn three times if the leader was prepared to split Labour “and worse”.
Smith said Corbyn gave no answer, but that when asked the same question the loyal shadow chancellor “shrugged his shoulders and said ‘If that’s what it takes’”.
Of the weekly meeting of Labour MPs that took place on June 27 Smith declared on Twitter:
Smith added afterwards that he was “not prepared to stand by and see our party split”.
“I have asked to meet with Jeremy again tomorrow to see how we can stop that,” he wrote.
But McDonnell rebutted the allegations furiously, branding them “complete rubbish”.
He claimed some Labour MPs at Westminster - known as the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) - were themselves “willing” to split.
The Guardian reported yesterday that some dissident Labour MPs were already in talks with their Conservative counterparts about forming a new party if Andrea Leadsom is elected Prime Minister and Corbyn remains in position.
But Smith’s original claim was backed up by Labour MP Kate Green, who was also at the weekly meeting with both Corbyn and McDonnell.
“I was in that meeting John,” she hit back. “I heard you say it. Are you now backtracking?”
Fellow Corbyn-opposer and Labour MP Mike Gapes said after Green’s post that her comments were proof that the leader and his shadow chancellor’s “agenda is to split the Labour party”.
McDonnell had not responded to the claims at time of publishing.