A shadow cabinet minister has been caught on tape giving a damning assessment of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his chances of winning a majority at the election.
Jonathan Ashworth said the situation facing Labour was “abysmal” because voters “can’t stand Corbyn” and think the party has “blocked Brexit” – but later sought to dismiss his remarks as “banter”.
The shadow health secretary, who is seen as a key ally of the Labour leader, also claimed that the Civil Service machine would “pretty quickly move to safeguard security” if Mr Corbyn entered Number 10.
And – in the recording obtained by the Guido Fawkes website – Mr Ashworth said party MPs “f***** it up” in 2016 in their attempt to remove the Labour leader by acting “too early”.
He later conceded that the leak made him “look like a right plonker”, but said he made the remarks while “joking around” with Tory friend Greig Baker.
“We’re having banter with each other – we’re joking around,” he told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show minutes after the recording was published.
“I don’t mean it because I’m joking around with my mate because he’s a Tory … If you leak it to Guido Fawkes of course it makes me look like a right plonker but it’s not what I mean when I’m winding up a friend – I’m trying to sort of pull his leg a bit.”
Mr Ashworth later apologised to Labour Party members, and suggested he was trying to “psych” his friend out “like football managers do”.
“Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve been too clever by half and I look like an idiot as a result of doing it,” he told BBC Two’s Politics Live.
Tory Party chairman James Cleverly said the remarks were an “honest and truly devastating assessment” of Mr Corbyn’s leadership “by one of his most trusted election lieutenants”.
It came as criticism over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apparent lack of empathy for a four-year-old boy left sleeping on a hospital floor because there was no bed available continued to dominate the Tory campaign.
Tory strategists will hope their prospects of securing an overall majority have not been dented by the row, which blew up over the treatment of Jack Williment-Barr at Leeds General Infirmary.
A photograph widely circulated on social media showed the boy lying on a pile of coats to keep warm while he waited for a bed for treatment for suspected pneumonia.
Questioned by ITV News, Mr Johnson initially refused to look at the photo on a reporter’s phone before taking the handset and putting it in his pocket.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was dispatched to the hospital in an attempt to defuse the growing media firestorm.
However his appearance prompted further recriminations following claims that his aide had been punched by a Labour Party activist.
Labour accused the Tories of “bare-faced lying” after video footage of the incident posted online showed only the arm of a protester accidentally brushing against the aide’s face.
Mr Corbyn claimed reports of the incident show what “media bias looks like”, tweeting: “This never happened. Invented by the Tories to divert your attention from a child having to lie on a hospital floor; reported by media that didn’t bother to check if it was true.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror carried a fresh picture of a nine-month-old baby girl who was forced to wait on a chair for six hours at the Countess of Chester Hospital, near Ellesmere Port, because there was no bed available.
In an election campaign largely devoid of significant slip-ups, it will heighten concern among Conservatives that they remain vulnerable in the face of concerted tactical voting by opponents of Brexit.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland sought to defend Mr Johnson’s handling of the situation, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There will come moments where you’re suddenly sprung with something and it’s difficult to know exactly what is happening.”
Asked about the inaccurate Tory media briefing about a punch, he said: “I don’t know who briefed what to whom and I have seen the footage … What I saw was a very confusing scene of public disorder.
“People who had clearly organised themselves to come along, create trouble and mischief – the sort of disorderly conduct, I’m afraid, from the left that we’ve seen in this campaign. It’s not a way to conduct civilised politics; people were shouting and gesticulating towards Matt Hancock and his team.”