Jeremy Corbyn believes that Esther McVey’s appointment as Work and Pensions Secretary is “a cause for alarm” for disabled people and others, his spokesman has revealed.
The Labour leader’s criticism of the minister came amid a Conservative backlash at online abuse directed at McVey, as well as fresh criticism of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s claim that she was a ‘stain on humanity’.
Supporters of the newly-installed Cabinet minister suggested some of the attacks stemmed also from McDonnell’s decision in 2014 to quote an activist who called for her to be “lynched”.
Corbyn condemned all personal abuse, his spokesman said, but felt that his fellow Labour MP had made justified criticism of McVey’s record on welfare cuts.
“Jeremy is also highly critical of her record. Her appointment is a cause for alarm and will be for disabled people in particular, but people across the country [too].
“Esther McVey is extremely unpopular because of her record in the last government as the DWP minister and the treatment of disabled people by that government.
“So it’s not encouraging at all. It’s alarming that she has now taken on this role with all the baggage that goes with that.”
Asked if Corbyn agreed with the Shadow Chancellor that McVey was “a stain on humanity”, the spokesman replied: “He has a very strong view that her record was disastrous and very damaging for disabled people.”
McVey was subjected to heavy online abuse following her appointment, with one Twitter user saying it amounted to a ‘death sentence’ for thousands of disabled claimants, adding “we’ll do whatever it takes to put her out of her misery”.
Another critic, upset at her tenure when she was a DWP minister under David Cameron,called her “evil personified”.
Others were less personal, but pointed instead to her handling of the introduction of the new Personal Independence Payments (PIP) system, claims of ‘bogus’ claimants of Disability Living Allowance and cuts to Remploy factories that hired disabled people.
But colleagues of McVey felt the personal attacks were beyond the pale. One told the Telegraph: “This kind of personal abuse is not just tolerated by Jeremy Corbyn it is actively encouraged by him.
“He promoted to shadow Chancellor the man who said of Esther they should ‘lynch the bitch’.”
The spokesman for the Labour leader said: “Jeremy has made clear time and again that he’s opposed to all forms on online harassment or abuse.
“If there are such cases they should not take place and should be condemned.”
When asked about his remarks on ITV’s Peston on Sunday show in 2016, McDonnell refused to apologise and said “sometimes you just have to express honest anger”.
McVey, who was on the same show, said it was part of a pattern of behaviour by McDonnell.
“This is a man who talks about the struggle through threats, intimidation and bullying and he doesn’t just talk about it – he whips up that culture,” she said.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper said that his refusal to withdraw the comments was “wrong”. “It’s really not ok”, she said.
Fellow backbencher Jess Phillips added at the time: “I think it’s utterly despicable. I cannot imagine why he refuses to apologise.”
Corbyn’s spokesman, when asked on Wednesday if he felt McDonnell should apologise, replied: “John McDonnell didn’t say that she should be lynched.
“It was a comment made at a meeting in 2014, he was reporting what was said at another meeting by a constituent.. He was not saying anything of the kind himself.
“Calling for the lynching of somebody is obviously abusive. He was reporting at the time what was being said in her own constituency.
“He’s made clear that he had said nothing of the kind, he was not calling for any lynching. He is obviously very critical of Esther McVey because of her record. That’s very different thing from calling for anyone to be lynched.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry repeatedly refused to condemn McDonnell directly when asked about his ‘stain on humanity’ remarks on Wednesday.
She would not be drawn on whether she believed he should apologise as she said it was “a matter for John” but added she “wouldn’t speak in those terms”.
Asked by Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5Live if she believed McDonnell should apologise, she replied: “I think that those who remember what it was that she said around the time that she was cutting benefits to disabled people will be horrified to hear that she is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.”
When it was pointed out that McVey had received online death threats, she said: “Well, that is wrong but what she needs to do is she needs to ensure that she educates herself properly about what the effects of cuts to benefits have on real people on a day to day basis.”