The Labour frontbencher Diane Abbott was forced into an embarrassing apology yesterday after being accused of racism for claiming "white people love playing divide and rule".
The storm followed a Twitter exchange between Ms Abbott and a journalist, which was prompted by the convictions of two men for the murder of Stephen Law-rence. Moments after insisting her remarks had been taken out of context, she was ordered by the party to backtrack and issued a contrite retraction of her words.
The shadow Public Health minister said: "I understand people have interpreted my comments as making generalisations about white people. I do not believe in doing that. I apologise for any offence caused." She was also warned by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, pictured below, that she would be sacked if she repeated such sentiments. The controversy began after the journalist Bim Adewunmi said she objected over the way the media used the phrase "black community" as a generalisation.
Ms Abbott, who has been the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington for 24 years, responded: "I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a 'divide and rule' agenda." She added: "White people love playing 'divide & rule'. We should not play their game."
Nadhim Zahawi, the Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, protested: "This is racism. If this was a white Member of Parliament saying, 'All black people want to do bad things to us,' they would have resigned within the hour or been sacked."
At first Ms Abbott, Britain's first black woman MP, sought to play down her comments, protesting they had been interpreted "maliciously" as she was referring to "19th century European colonialism".
Asked on live television to explain what she meant, she broke off mid-sentence to take a telephone call from the Labour leader. Shortly afterwards, she apologised and the offending tweet was deleted. A senior Labour source said: "Ed Miliband made it very clear to her she would be sacked if she didn't apologise."