John McDonnell has come under fire from Labour MPs over his claims that they are part of a “soft coup” plot to unseat Jeremy Corbyn.
Addressing the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the Shadow Chancellor was also criticised for a perceived failure to hit the Tories harder over Brexit and the economy.
As he set out the party’s priorities in Budget 2017 week, McDonnell told the PLP on Monday night that the Tories’ “biggest fear” was a united Labour Opposition.
He also praised MPs who had highlighted the Conservative government’s cuts to the most vulnerable and to local councils.
But McDonnell came under attack from two backbenchers who blamed him for deepening divisions with his suggestion that there was a new plot between MPs and the media to oust Corbyn.
Labour MPs Wes Streeting and Peter Kyle poured scorn on his claims in the wake of the Copeland and Stoke by-elections that a “soft coup” was “underway” against the party leader.
McDonnell had written articles in the Morning Star and Labour Briefing newspapers suggesting that a “planned, co-ordinated and fully resourced” plot was being driven by MPs and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. He was also quoted making the same claim in the Socialist Worker newspaper.
Streeting listed the pieces, and said that they came at a time when Sir John Major and even George Osborne had done a better job than Labour in criticising Theresa May’s Brexit plans.
“Why is it that a former Tory Prime Minister is more effective at attacking a Tory government than a Labour Shadow Chancellor?” Streeting asked.
He and Kyle claimed that McDonnell’s pleas for party unity contrasted with his own refusal to apologise for the “soft coup” claims.
Kyle cited a line from Shadow Cabinet minister Barry Gardiner - that the coup allegations were the work of a “late-night typewriter” - and asked why McDonnell couldn’t spend his time writing clearer messages on the economy and Brexit.
McDonnell said that he would work harder to consult MPs for their thoughts on “lines of attack” against the Tories and said everyone, including himself, had to focus on unity.
“What the Tories fear most is a united Labour Party,” he said.
Earlier, the Shadow Chancellor had praised backbenchers Caroline Flint, Rachel Reeves and Angela Eagle for their work in exposing Conservative policies. He also singled out shadow minister Jim McMahon for his attacks on cuts to council budgets.
He said that Labour’s main priorities in Budget week would be tackling “chronic low pay”, the “rigged economy” on tax, giving the NHS and social care “the funding it needs” and ensuring the economy “works for women”.
Former minister John Spellar told the meeting that the PLP’s Parliamentary Committee should invite Corbyn to explain why “his office keep letting him down” on issues such as the accuracy of his tax returns.
Following the meeting, McDonnell’s spokesman said MPs had “asked questions on unity...John said he would take them on board”.
“John’s main focus has always been...that we must focus on unity.
“He did say in front of the group that he was looking to...a sign of contrition and with reflection...because the most important thing is that we come together to take on the Tories to expose the lies they are saying on the economy.”
He added that the Conservatives were scared because Corbyn would be “one of the most transformative Labour Prime Ministers since Clement Attlee - and they fear that deeply.”
“And he was making clear that’s why all of us, including himself and everyone else, we have to focus on unity, shoulder to shoulder, this week.”
One source claimed that a maximum of seven MPs raised any negativity and that the majority of backbenchers present were not critical.
The spokesman added that Corbyn and McDonnell’s publication of their tax returns, and their opposition to cuts in inheritance tax and capital gains tax, proved how Labour was now a different party.
“There’s a genuine worry and a very deep concern in the Labour party about democracy in our country in which you have the Chancellor refusing to publish his tax returns and the Prime Minister refusing to publish hers.”
After withdrawing his claims about the “soft coup” last week, McDonnell said at the time that he would even invite former Cabinet Minister Peter Mandelson to share “a cup of tea” to prove he wanted party unity.
“I won’t give out any details but yes we have begun our ‘tea offensive’,” his spokesman said.
McDonnell had told MPs at the PLP meeting that anyone could meet him for a cup of tea, he added.
During the meeting, Streeting had complained about last weekend’s leak of a fractious showdown between the PLP’s Parliamentary Committee and Corbyn in the wake of the Copeland by-election loss.
PLP chairman Jon Cryer had told the party leader to “stop rubbishing people who have given their lives to this party”, while Tom Blenkinsop told him: “You have the worst electoral record of any Labour leader in history.”
Cyrer told the PLP on Monday he’d spoken personally to elected members of the committee and been assured by them they had not breached any confidences.