Doubling down on her comments made on the first day of Labour’s annual conference in Brighton, the party’s deputy leader said on Sunday that “leaving children hungry” in the midst of a pandemic was “pretty scummy”.
However, her remarks have provoked anger from Conservative cabinet ministers, including the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, who described them as “appalling”.
In comments reported by the Daily Mirror, Ms Rayner told Labour activists she was sick of “shouting from the sidelines”, adding: “We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, misogynistic, absolute vile [inaudible] banana-republic, vile, nasty, Etonian [inaudible] piece of scum.”
Conservative minister Amanda Milling said Ms Rayner’s comments were “completely unacceptable” and demanded she apologise. “As elected representatives we have a duty to lead by example,” added Ms Milling.
Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party chair, added: “We need to make politics better, not drag it into the gutter. Let’s see if we get an apology.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer sidestepped calls for Ms Rayner to apologise.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that he would speak with his deputy, adding: “Angela and I take different approaches, and that is not the language that I would use.”
But there were signs of annoyance within the party’s upper echelons at the impact of the comments.
One shadow cabinet minister told The Independent: “Being rude about Boris doesn’t work because there are a lot of people who voted for him who we want to vote for us.”
Ms Rayner defended the attack, which was delivered during a reception at the conference, stressing that it was levelled at senior ministers and Mr Johnson rather than at Conservatives in general.
“That was post-watershed with a group of activists at an event last night,” she told Sky News, adding that the prime minister had failed to apologise for his own previous remarks “that are homophobic, that are racist, that are misogynistic”.
“When the prime minister uses language like calling Muslim women ‘letter boxes’, that has an effect,” she said. “The fact he hasn’t apologised for that ... I don’t think he’s fit to govern.”
Ms Rayner added: “Anyone who leaves children hungry during a pandemic and can give billions of pounds to their mates on WhatsApp, I think that was pretty scummy.
“Let me contextualise it – it’s a phrase that you would hear very often in northern, working-class towns, that we’d even say jovially to other people – we’d say it’s a scummy thing to do. That to me is my street language ... [meaning that] actually it’s pretty appalling that people think that’s OK to do.”
In an apparent reference to Mr Johnson’s history of offensive comments in past newspaper columns – including comparing burqa-wearing Muslim women to “letter boxes” and describing gay men as “tank-topped bum boys” – Ms Rayner stated that she would only apologise if the prime minister also said sorry.
“If the prime minister wants to apologise and remove himself from those comments that he’s made … then I will apologise for calling him scummy,” she said.
Former Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis said that if Ms Rayner refuses to apologise, Starmer should say he no longer has confidence in her as deputy.
Lord Adonis suggested that the incendiary comments were intended to get the ball rolling on a leadership election campaign.
“The Labour Party’s leadership, at the moment, is very seriously divided and extremely weak,” the peer told Times Radio.
“The fact that the deputy leader can descend into a gutter of name-calling - and the only reason I can see that she did it was in order to get going a leadership election campaign against Keir Starmer - is I’m afraid a pretty depressing commentary on where things are in what ought to be an alternative government.
“The moment that Labour starts descending into the gutter like this, it will become unelectable. It’s as simple as that.”
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