A war of words has broken out at the top of Labour this afternoon as Jeremy Corbyn accused his deputy of “patronising members and peddling baseless conspiracy theories”.
Corbyn launched the attack after Tom Watson claimed Trotskyists had infiltrated the Labour party and would end up destroying it, and were “twisting young arms” in the process.
The Labour leader hit back, saying Watson was indulging in the “Project Fear” tactics employed by leadership rival Owen Smith.
Watson made the comments in an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday as he spelt out his fears for Labour’s future.
He said: “There are some old hands twisting young arms in this process, and I’m under no illusions about what’s going on.
“They are caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that’s how Trotsky entryists operate.
“Sooner or later, that always ends up in disaster. It always ends up destroying the institutions that are vulnerable, unless you deal with it.”
Watson added that radical members had returned to Labour after being driven out decades ago, and that they neither had the best interests of the party at heart nor were “remotely interested” in winning elections.
But the comments sparked anger from Corbyn, who swiftly defended his supporters and also hit out at Watson for “forcing” Labour’s National Executive Committee to appeal a court ruling to grant voting rights to all new members in the upcoming leadership election.
“Labour’s members want a politics of hope, reflecting the fact that our party’s membership has grown to become the largest of any left-of-centre party in Europe under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn,” a spokesperson for the leader said.
”Rather than patronising members and peddling baseless conspiracy theories about ‘Trotskyist entryists’, he should be working with Jeremy to unite our party so that we can get back to campaigning to dislodge this Tory government, and help elect a Labour government in its place.”
Corbyn was also bolstered by supporters on Twitter, some of whom mocked Watson for comments they felt were aimed at them.
But ex-Labour MP Tony McNulty came to the defence of his former colleague. He claimed the people accusing Watson of living in “cloud cuckoo land” were themselves guilty by the same standard.
Watson added after Corbyn’s campaign team’s reaction that he could not believe the response had been approved.
“In my interview with the Guardian I made it clear that many members of Momentum are motivated by a desire to see political change and build a more equal society,” the West Bromwich East MP said.
“John McDonnell has consistently made it clear that everyone in our party must be free to express their opinion and be heard respectfully without fear of being shouted down, which is why I simply don’t believe he approved these intemperate words from Jeremy’s campaign.”
Watson and Corbyn have clashed repeatedly in the past since the pair were elected to their respective positions last September. The deputy leader called on Corbyn to resign just one month ago as turmoil broke out in the party.
The duo had a one-to-one meeting in the aftermath of mass Shadow Cabinet resignations, during which Watson told Corbyn he could not credibly go on in his post.
The drama sparked a formal challenge for the leadership from Smith, who resigned as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary in June.