Labour’s deep divisions over antisemitism were exposed afresh on Wednesday, after the party’s top official, Jennie Formby, succumbed to intense pressure and suspended the MP Chris Williamson.
The announcement reversed a decision hours earlier to allow Williamson to continue to remain a Labour MP, while a “pattern of behaviour” was investigated – which had sparked a furious backlash from senior MPs, including the deputy leader, Tom Watson.
In the week when Jewish MP Luciana Berger defected to the breakaway Independent Group, saying she had become “embarrassed and ashamed to remain in the Labour party”, Williamson was filmed saying Labour had been “too apologetic”, about antisemitism.
In the footage, first revealed by the Yorkshire Post, Williamson was cheered by activists in Sheffield as he said: “I’ve got to say, I think our party’s response has been partly responsible … Because, in my opinion, we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic.”
The Derby North MP, who is a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, issued an apology on Wednesday morning, saying: “I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour party has responded to the ongoing fight against antisemitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle antisemitism.”
Shortly afterwards, a spokesman for Corbyn announced Williamson had been issued with a “notice of investigation”; but he would remain a Labour member while a “pattern of behaviour” was examined.
Several backbenchers told the Guardian they were convinced Corbyn himself had been involved in the decision not to suspend Williamson immediately. But a Labour spokesman insisted: “Jeremy did not intervene.”
Williamson was also facing complaints about having booked a room in parliament to screen a controversial film about Jackie Walker, an activist suspended from the party.
The Derby North MP is an enthusiastic supporter of Corbyn, who served as shadow fire minister, before being removed from the post after departing from the Labour line on taxation.
The Labour leader told Williamson’s local paper, the Derby Telegraph, in January: “Chris Williamson is a very good, very effective Labour MP. He’s a very strong anti-racist campaigner. He is not antisemitic in any way.”
The decision not to suspend Williamson immediately sparked a fierce backlash among MPs, with Watson calling his apology “long-winded and heavily caveated”, and saying he would already have been suspended “if it was in my gift”.
The GMB trade union leader, Tim Roache, as well as the anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, called for the whip to be withdrawn immediately.
After his suspension was announced several hours later, Labour MP Wes Streeting said: “This is very welcome, however overdue. The leadership needs to send a message to every member that dismissing or delegitimising concerns about antisemitism will not be tolerated. Zero tolerance must mean zero tolerance.”
Watson challenged Corbyn directly over the party’s handling of antisemitism cases on Sunday, stepping up a war of words between the pair since nine Labour MPs left the party last week.
Watson said Corbyn faced “a crisis for the soul of the Labour party” – and presented him with a dossier of 50 antisemitism cases he claimed had been reported by MPs in recent months and not yet dealt with.
Formby, a former Unite organiser, was backed for the post by Corbyn, and promised to speed up action against antisemitism.
She and Corbyn came under pressure throughout Wednesday to suspend Williamson immediately, while a series of complaints against him were considered.
Labour’s backbench parliamentary committee, which consists of senior MPs selected by their colleagues, decided to lodge its own protest, by asking Williamson not to attend the weekly meetings of the party’s MPs.
And 38 MPs from the soft left Tribune group, including several frontbenchers, signed a letter to Formby calling for his immediate suspension. More MPs made their views known to Corbyn’s office throughout the afternoon.
The Guardian understands that there was also considerable disquiet among Labour staff about the decision not to suspend Williamson while his case is considered. “After a coordinated push we got them into the right place,” said one senior party source.
Williamson said on Wednesday evening he planned to clear his name, insisting: “I think I’ve got a very strong case. There is no evidence against me in reality.”
Theresa May seized on the case at prime minister’s questions, saying: “If Jeremy Corbyn wanted to take action against racism in his party he’d suspend Williamson immediately.”
The tensions over antisemitism have added to the sense of disquiet at senior levels in Labour since the creation of the Independent Group last week.
Corbyn and the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, announced a shift towards supporting a second referendum on Monday, in part to reduce the risk of further defections.
But anti-referendum MPs reacted angrily – and some shadow ministers were irked at being excluded from the decision, which was rubber-stamped at a small Brexit strategy group.
Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, rang shadow cabinet members on Wednesday to apologise for not consulting them about the change of policy, the Guardian understands.
Even some of Corbyn’s inner circle were concerned about the Labour leader’s defiant response to last week’s resignations, in which he called for immediate byelections in their seats – and reminded them they were elected in 2017 on his manifesto.
In response to Watson’s demand that he carry out a shadow cabinet reshuffle to “broaden out” the frontbench, Corbyn said: “Anyone who does not feel consulted is not taking up, in my view, the opportunities that are available, at all times, to do that.”