Owen Smith has apologised for saying he would not be a “lunatic” Labour leader but denied it was intended as a personal attack on his embattled rival Jeremy Corbyn.
The ex-shadow work and pensions secretary claimed he was talking about himself when he said at a campaign event in London that “what you won’t have from me is some lunatic at the top the Labour Party”.
After criticism from Corbyn’s leadership re-election campaign team for the “offensive language”, Smith gave an unreserved apology to those who took issue with the comment that invoked mental illness.
He also vowed to be “slightly less colourful” with his language after a series of off-worded comments.
Smith had told audience members at a rally in Hammersmith, west London that he disagreed with Corbyn when he said the party had to get “some of the people who contemplated voting Tory in the past to vote Labour”.
“Rubbish,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get 2 million people who actually voted Tory 12 months ago to vote Labour - in 106 seats.”
“And what you won’t have from me is some lunatic at the top the Labour Party.
“You will have someone who tries to form a coherent narrative about what is wrong with Britain, why is it we are so unproductive as an economy? Why is it we aren’t creating more decent jobs?”
Smith also told the rally there was “no god given right of the Labour Party to exist” and it risked being “lost for generations” if Corbyn remained in charge.
“I don’t think we will win an election with Jeremy,” he said. “If we don’t win that election, I fear for our legacy.”
And he urged party members not to quit the party if Corbyn is re-elected Labour. “If he he wins, please don’t resign, because we’ve got make sure we have people fighting for our values,” he said.
But responding to Smith’s use of the word “lunatic”, Corbyn’s re-election campaign said the remark risked offending those with poor mental health.
“Owen Smith has degraded this contest by descending into personal abuse,” a Jeremy for Labour spokesperson said.
“He should apologise to people suffering with mental illness, many of whom would have been dismayed and upset to to hear such offensive language used in public by a Labour politician.
“He should also withdraw his remark, and spend time with people suffering from mental health problems to develop some sensitivity in his use of language.
“This is simply not the language that someone standing to lead our party should use, and it injects an ugly tone into this contest that no Labour member wants to see.”
After the rebuttal, Smith clarified his comments, saying they were “a poor choice of words”.
When asked why he called Corbyn a lunatic the Pontypridd MP said: “I was saying that I wasn’t a lunatic. Having been accused earlier in the evening of running round like a lunatic, I was saying that I wasn’t a lunatic. I wasn’t talking about Jeremy, I was talking about me.
“If anyone’s offended by the use of that word I’ll apologise and I’ve done that already and I’ll do it again.”
The clash came as Corbyn was engulfed in a row - now known as ‘traingate’ - over if he told the truth about whether there had been any spare seats on a train or not.
Corbyn will face Smith in a head-to-head leadership debate on Thursday evening.