Chris Williamson Has Whip Withdrawn Again As Labour's NEC Intervenes To Review 'Anti-Semitism' Case

Exclusive: He is to be referred for a full investigation, sources say.
Evening Standard

Labour MP Chris Williamson has been suspended from the parliamentary party once more ahead of an urgent review of his anti-Semitism case.

General secretary Jennie Formby took the move following a backlash from party MPs, members and Jewish groups.

The dramatic step came after HuffPost UK revealed that several key members of the ruling National Executive Committee had agreed privately they will refer Williamson for full investigation next month.

Labour MPs had been separately moving to withdraw the parliamentary whip from the backbencher next week in protest at the way he was allowed to return to full party membership.

Williamson was placed under investigation in February after Jewish groups and MPs complained about a ‘pattern of behaviour’, including a video of him saying Labour had been “too apologetic” about its anti-Semitism problem.

But a three-member panel sparked an outcry on Wednesday when they ignored a recommendation by party staff to send his case to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) that deals with disciplinary matters.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, who was on the panel, subsequently wrote to Formby to change his decision and urge a fresh look at the case. He had been installed on the panel at short notice.

Senior party sources and NEC members have told HuffPost that they have the numbers to ensure the Williamson decision is reversed when they next meet on July 9.

The Disputes Panel, which usually ‘notes’ and signs off decisions by smaller anti-semitism panels, will reject the Williamson verdict and is expected instead to send it to the NEC’s Organisation Sub-Committee later that same day.

The NEC ‘Org Sub’, as it is known, is made up of nearly all of the NEC’s 33-strong members and has the power to reopen the case. Multiple sources said the case would be referred to the NCC, a quasi-judicial body that can expel and sanction any member of the party who falls foul of its rules.

The Disputes Panel in theory also has the power itself to refer any case to the NCC.

A party source said: “Jennie Formby has written to the NEC to inform them that the issues raised in Keith Vaz’s email will be on the agenda for the NEC Disputes Committee’s next meeting.

“Under the party’s rulebook the general secretary and the leader of the party cannot overturn decisions made by NEC panels, which are advised by independent barristers. Only the NEC has the power to do so.

“Subsequently, the whip is not restored as the decision is still pending.”

Williamson’s case has united both ‘moderates’ and those on the Left, including Momentum founder Jon Lansman, as MPs and peers urged Corbyn to intervene.

“Lots of the Left on the NEC are very angry,” said one source. “The decision on Williamson is definitely going to be rejected and then overturned.”

Williamson vehemently denies he is anti-Semitic and he and his supporters insist he had instead been trying to distinguish between criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment.

But more than 104 Jewish and non-Jewish members of party staff have written to general secretary Jennie Formby to call for the decision to readmit Williamson to be overturned, partly because his history of statements and conduct make them ‘feel unwelcome by his presence at work’.

Corbyn is reluctant to personally get involved in any disciplinary process, but it is understood that he would be content if Labour’s own bodies decided to take action within the constitution and rules of the party.

The Labour leader refused to intervene on Thursday, saying the panel “went through the case, they interviewed him and they went through the case in great detail, and the three of them on the panel made that decision”.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer called for the NEC to step in on Friday, but it is understood that key members of the ruling body had already decided to act.

But Labour MPs have decided to take matters into their own hands, deploying rarely-used standing orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to get its Parliamentary Committee of senior backbenchers to step in.

Former minister Diana Johnson has co-ordinated a letter to PLP chairman John Cryer which calls for it to use powers to remove the whip from an MP “in exceptional circumstances”.

The letter, signed by more than 70 Labour MPs and peers including some frontbenchers, seeks to bypass the usual process whereby only the chief whip and leader decide which MP should be suspended from the party in the Commons.

A key section of the PLP rulebook, titled ‘Withdrawal of the Whip’, states:

“Following the conclusion of an investigation into a Member’s conduct or in exceptional circumstances, withdrawal of the Whip (ie expulsion from the Parliamentary Labour Party) may be decided upon by a meeting of the Parliamentary Party at which prior notice of the motion has been given by the Parliamentary Committee.

“The notice of motion shall include the terms of the proposed withdrawal including the length of time the withdrawal is proposed to last”.

Several members of the NEC are furious at Disputes Panel chair Claudia Webbe for her role in the postponement of the anti-Semitism panel earlier this week.

Her late withdrawal is blamed by some for the delay that meant Lansman, who had been expecting to refer the matter for further action, could not attend. NEC members complain that Webbe’s latest error is one of a long line of blunders.

“Some people want to no-confidence her and there’s talk of removing her as chair of Disputes,” one source said.

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