Tory chairman wades into row over 'pigs' tweet

Conservative chairman demands answers over Labour MP's web posting
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Indy Politics

The Tory chairman, Eric Pickles, came close to calling a senior Labour MP a liar as a bizarre spat between the parties over an abusive message on Twitter degenerated into acrimony.

The row – inevitably branded "Twittergate" at Westminster last night – blew up after David Wright, the MP for Telford, described Conservatives as "scum-sucking pigs" on the micro-blogging website.

Mr Wright admitted typing the words: "You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig." But he later insisted that the phrase "scum-sucking" had been added by a "third party".

His comments sparked a heated debate among the political "twitterati" over whether it was possible to tamper with a tweet after it had been sent out.

The blunt-speaking Mr Pickles was in no doubt. He told Mr Wright in a stinging letter: "Rather than owning up to your actions you seem to be trying to claim that your Twitter feed was hacked into. This explanation is simply not credible."

In addition, the Tories produced other examples of Mr Wright using "gutter language" on Twitter, including one instance of his calling David Cameron a "horrible opportunistic scumbag". He also lambasted Mr Cameron in a message as a "hypocritical vicious leader of the nasty party... jeopardising justice while taking millions from Ashcroft."

However, Labour members have had trouble with fake tweets before. David Miliband fell victim to a Twitter scam last year when a fake account was set up in his name. It led to reports that the Foreign Secretary had paid tribute to Michael Jackson on his Twitter feed shortly after the singer's death was announced.

The clashes were a foretaste of the unpredictable effect of the Twitter phenomenon on this year's general election.

The social networking service had not even been created the last time the country went to the polls in 2005. Today it has millions of users in the UK and as the general election nears, party headquarters are planning to use the power of the instant messaging service – but are also bracing themselves for the fallout caused by errant and malicious tweets.

The perils of Twitter were underlined as a colourful message parodying the Tory slogan "I've never voted Tory before..." appeared on Mr Wright's site. It read: "Because you can put lipstick on a scum-sucking pig, but it's still a scum-sucking pig. And cos they would ruin Britain."

The message caused an instant barrage of protest on the right-wing blogosphere, prompting Mr Wright to post a fresh tweet: "Oh dear, upsetting Tories again. Must've hit a nerve."

In a more conciliatory post he insisted his words were not aimed at Conservative supporters. He wrote: "Think you will find the pig is the Tory party not Tory voters. But fair dos, apology in the ether." In a subsequent message he said: "Apologised. Not forced. Genuine."

Yesterday Mr Wright, a Labour whip, told BBC Radio Shropshire he had made a "legitimate comment", given that Twitter is "edgy".

He added: "I put up on Twitter a message linked to Barack Obama's comment in the presidential race last year about conservative policy, which is you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig. It looks like somebody, a third party, has gone into my account and made it more offensive.

"I think it was a legitimate comment and I mean Twitter is edgy and you know it provokes debate, it looks on this occasion as if it has caused a serious problem and we need to go back and look at that." But Mr Pickles retorted: "This is the sort of offensive behaviour that turns people off voting."

A Labour spokesman said that the party had nothing to add to Mr Wright's comments.