Jeremy Corbyn and his media chief have come under attack from angry Labour MPs over claims that left-wing group Momentum was plotting to take over the party.
Voices were raised at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday as tempers boiled over at briefings that deputy leader Tom Watson had been ‘reckless’ in raising concerns about the grassroots movement.
PLP chairman Jon Cryer said that Momentum now looked like “a party within a party”, a description used for 1980s entryist faction Militant.
In the meeting, former PLP chair Dave Watts confronted communications and strategy chief Seumas Milne to say he was “a disgrace”, while Labour MPs attacked Corbyn’s leadership and rallied to Watson’s defence.
Corbyn was seated uneasily between Watson and Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale. “He stared stonily into the distance and didn’t exchange a word with Tom in the 90 minute meeting,” said one source. “The body language was telling, they were like two skittles not ever touching.”
The deputy Labour leader had earlier clashed with Momentum founder Jon Lansman after a secret recording showed him predicting that the Unite union would affiliate to the group to help influence the party at every level.
Watson had said that the alleged takeover plot was so serious that it threatened to “destroy” Labour and there would be “a battle for the future existence” of the party.
The issue was raised at a heated meeting of the Shadow Cabinet on Monday and Corbyn and Watson agreed a joint statement afterwards on “the need to strengthen party unity”.
But within minutes, a Labour source briefed that Watson had been “slapped down” by Corbyn - with the support of fellow Shadow Cabinet ministers.
Cabinet ministers felt his intervention was a “reckless” attempt to influence Unite’s own election for general secretary, with Corbyn ally Len McCluskey pitted against challenger Gerard Coyne, the source claimed.
The briefing also warned that Watson’s decision to attack Momentum now risked jeopardising the West Midlands mayoral contest in May, where Labour is facing a tight contest with the Tories.
But although John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and Jon Trickett supported Corbyn, other Shadow ministers attacked Lansman. John Healey, Jon Ashworth, Keir Starmer and Angela Smith rounded on the Momentum chief.
The PLP meeting began with a generous tribute by former leader Neil Kinnock to the late Sir Gerald Kaufman, including a joke about them both meeting George H.W. Bush “the one who can read and write”.
But the mood changed when Labour MP John Spellar got up to raised the negative briefing against Watson, who received loud applause from MPs.
Cryer said the attack on Watson “bore no relation” to the Shadow Cabinet meeting, while an angry Lord Watts tore into Milne. Milne replied that Watts was “abusing Labour party staff”.
Wes Streeting said that the Lansman recording confirmed the worst fears that Momentum was seeking to infiltrate the party to take over selections and deselection.
“Every member of the Shadow Cabinet who failed to speak out should search their consciences as they drive the Labour party off a cliff,” he said.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry told Streeting to “calm down”, to which he replied “Don’t tell me to calm down!”
On the day that a new opinion poll showed the Tories were still 19 points ahead of Labour despite the Budget chaos, veteran MP David Winnick asked how Corbyn planned to turn the situation around.
“Very few of you were here, but I remember the 1980s when we had a party within a party then,” Winnick said. “With Momentum we have a party within a party again.” He added that Labour won just 209 seats in 1983 and warned it was heading towards having even fewer.
Mike Gapes also pointed to the huge Tory lead in the polls. “How can we turn things round if Theresa May calls an election?” he asked. “What is your strategy?”
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale then gave an update. She highlighted that the SNP called the first independence referendum after they won the 2011 Scottish elections, and that the Tories were dictating the second referendum because they won the general election in 2015.
To loud cheers and appluse, Dugdale said: “Never forget the best way to represent and deliver for working people will always be from the government benches.”
Backbencher Pat McFadden was scathing as questions were then opened to both Corbyn and Dugdale. “Our weakness is emboldening the nationalist right wherever it exists,” he said, referring to the Tories, UKIP and the SNP.
Chris Leslie asked Corbyn to explain why he had said it would be “absolutely fine” to hold a second independence referendum.
Former minister Ian Austin - who had been frustrated at not being able to quiz the Labour leader directly - told Corbyn it was time for him to “look in a mirror”. “Having a mandate is one thing, actually being able to do the job is another,” he said. Corbyn was a “so-called leader’, he added.
Former PLP chair Lord Watts asked what Corbyn was doing to stop the anonymous, negative briefing being done in his name.
Corbyn then got up to say that there had been a “good” Shadow Cabinet meeting, where he had asked each frontbencher to list their three policy priorities for the party.
He said he had been out campaigning and looked forward to doing so for the mayoral contests in Manchester, Liverpool, West Midlands and Teesside in coming months.
Corbyn warned that every MP “from every wing of the party” should be out campaigning because “we’ve got a lot to do”.
But when it became clear that the Labour leader was not going to answer specific questions put to him, backbencher Neil Coyle started shouting from the back of the meeting that it wasn’t good enough.
“When are you going to end the backstabbbing briefings by your staff?” he asked. The meeting was then ended amid more shouting.
Afterwards, a senior Labour source said that Milne had not been the one briefing the media against Watson. They stressed that although Milne was aware of the the briefing he had not “encouraged it”.
“The message that Jeremy gave to the meeting is that we need to be a united party and we need to be talking about the issues that affect our voters,” the source said.
“That’s what we should be talking about, not the internal affairs of the Labour party. He’d encourage everybody who has been briefing about the internal affairs of the Labour party to follow that line.”
One Labour grandee and veteran peer was asked if the meeting was as bad as those he’d attended in the Militant v Kinnock years. He replied: “No, no - it is much, much worse than that.”