John McDonnell has claimed Ian Austin is “employed by the Tories” after the former Labour MP told voters to back Boris Johnson.
Austin, who will become the government’s trade envoy to Israel now he has stepped down as MP for Dudley North, has urged people to vote Conservative to stop Jeremy Corbyn from becoming prime minister.
Austin, the adopted son of a Jewish refugee who fled the Holocaust, quit Labour in February over Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, claiming there was a “culture of extremism, antisemitism and intolerance” in the party.
But the shadow chancellor hit back at Austin in an extraordinary attack at an event in Liverpool on Thursday, telling the crowd: “He’s now employed by the Tories: what else do you expect him to do in an election campaign where you’re employed by the Tories, you speak on behalf of the Tories.”
Austin hit back on Twitter, calling McDonnell’s claim a “complete lie”. As a trade envoy, the ex-MP will not be paid a salary by the government but he can claim expenses.
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Meanwhile, fellow ex-Labour MP John Woodcock joined Austin in saying he will vote Conservative at the next election, as the pair launched a campaign called Mainstream in West Midlands with posters bearing the slogan ‘Jeremy Corbyn, unfit to lead the country’.
Unite boss Len McCluskey, meanwhile, went further, branding Austin as “treacherous”.
Woodcock, who announced last week he would not re-contest the Barrow constituency, revealed he would be the government’s new envoy on countering far-right and Islamist extremism.
It came as the issue of anti-Semitism was again centre stage, with the front page of the Jewish Chronicle urging the British public not to vote Labour.
Asked about the issue, McDonnell said Labour was “saddened” by the Jewish Chronicle’s front page.
He said: “Of course we’re saddened by it, but we’re doing everything actually they asked of us to address this issue.”
Speaking to the BBC Radio 4′s The World At One, he later said the Chronicle was “behind the times”.
He added: “I just say to them, look, have a look again at the reality of what we’ve done, because actually we’ve done everything asked of us.”
When told the Jewish community still has concerns, he said the party has an “open door”, adding: “I say to others in the Jewish community – help us then.”
Questions are also being asked about the Labour candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow Rushanara Ali, who is the government’s trade envoy to Bangladesh.
“It really comes to something when I’m telling people to vote for Boris Johnson in this election,” Austin had told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme.
But, he added: “Jeremy Corbyn is completely unfit to run the country.” He also told his local newspaper the Express and Star that “decent patriotic Labour voters” had no choice but to vote for the Conservatives.
Labour insisted the party looked to purge those found to have engaged in anti-Semitism.
A spokesman said: “We are taking robust action to root out anti-Semitism in the party, with swift suspensions and expulsions.
“In the last 18 months the rate at which we are dealing with cases has increased more than four-fold.
“Anti-Semitism complaints account for less than 0.1% of the Labour Party membership, while polls show anti-Semitism is far more prevalent among Conservative than Labour Party supporters, and a majority of Conservative Party members hold Islamophobic views.”
Turning on the prime minister, the spokesman said: “Boris Johnson has described black people as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ and published an article in which the author boasted of being an anti-Semite, while his comments about Muslim women looking like ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter boxes’ were linked to a 375% rise in anti-Muslim hate crime.”