Labour’s General Election campaign was in meltdown last night after a shadow Cabinet minister denounced Jeremy Corbyn as a risk to Britain’s national security. In a leaked recording of a private conversation, frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth claimed the Civil Service would “pretty quickly move to safeguard security” should the hard-Left Labour leader become prime minister.
But he added there was little chance of Mr Corbyn entering Downing Street because of Labour’s “dire” electoral prospects. Voters “can’t stand Corbyn and they think Labour’s blocked Brexit,” the shadow health secretary admitted. Red-faced Mr Ashworth said after the 11-minute recording became public: “In the cold light of day, when these quotes are read out I obviously look stupid and I apologise to the Labour Party”. But Boris Johnson declared: “Jonathan Ashworth is saying what hundreds of Labour candidates and millions of voters are thinking.
“Jeremy Corbyn is unfit to be PM because he is blocking Brexit.”
Mr Ashworth was thought to have made his unguarded remarks about a week ago when talking to Greig Baker, a former chairman of the Conservative Association in Leicester South, where Mr Ashworth became MP in 2011.
Mr Baker was understood to have recorded the conversation, which was released by the political news website Guido Fawkes yesterday.
In the recording, Mr Ashworth was heard talking about his experience as a Downing Street adviser under Gordon Brown and what might happen if Mr Corbyn reached Downing Street.
He said: “I don’t know, on the security stuff; I worked in Number 10, I think the machine will pretty quickly move to safeguard security, I mean the Civil Service machine. But it’s not going to happen! I can’t see it happening!”
Labour was likely instead to suffer devastating losses in the party’s north of England heartland constituencies Mr Ashworth said.
“I’ve been going round these national places, it’s dire for Labour, it’s dire. It’s awful for them, and it’s the combination of Corbyn and Brexit. Outside of the city seats it’s abysmal out there. They can’t stand Corbyn and they think Labour’s blocked Brexit.”
When Mr Baker joked that he was trying to “work out what to put in the suitcase” to flee the country in case Mr Corbyn came to power, Mr Ashworth sought to dispel his fears.
“I just can’t see it happening. It wouldn’t surprise me, for sake of argument, [if]we held Canterbury because of sort of middle-class, Guardian-reading people, but then the Tories take Bolsover off of Labour.
“In Mansfield, in Ashfield, it’s dire for the Labour Party up there, these traditional working areas.”
Mr Baker then asked about the prospects of Labour dumping Mr Corbyn if the Tories win the election. Mr Ashworth replied: “That’s the thing that’s on our minds.” Later interviewed on BBC by Victoria Derbyshire the shadow health secretary claimed he had been joking.
Mr Ashworth said: “We’re having banter with each other – we’re joking around.
“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 Baker, criticised for leaking the conversation, said: “If someone tells you about a threat to national security – that they say could only be avoided by asking Civil Servants to act unconstitutionally – there’s a duty to tell people about it.”
During an election visit in the Midlands, the Prime Minister said that Mr Ashworth’s private remarks confirmed that the Labour leader could not be trusted with the UK’s security, calling him an “appeaser of the Kremlin”.
In a speech at a JCB at Rocester, Staffs, the Prime Minister said: “If you doubt me, look at what his health spokesman said today, Jon Ashworth.
“He revealed that he thought his own leader is a security risk.
“And there is another fact Mr Ashworth mentioned which I think is even more terrifying when you look at the year ahead and the prospects for our country.
“Jon Ashworth made it absolutely clear that the reason Mr Corbyn is failing to persuade some people to vote for him is he is blocking Brexit – he won’t get Brexit done.
“Don’t just listen to me, look at what his health spokesman Jon Ashworth has said. He is absolutely right.”
Mr Corbyn described Mr Ashworth’s remarks as “a private bit of banter between two old friends”.
He added: “He called me straight away. I’m cool with Jon, we get on great.”
Greig Baker: What sort of proportion of them think Labour is going to get smashed?
Jonathan Ashworth: Anyone in the Midlands… anyone outside of the city seats, if you are in small-town Midlands and North, it’s abysmal out there.
They don’t like Johnson but they can’t stand Corbyn and they think Labour’s blocked Brexit.
I don’t think they are long-term gains for the Tory Party but I can well see them going Tory this election and if Labour ever got its act together they presumably would fall back, do you know what I mean?
JA: But on the other end of the scale I think middle-class graduates – remainy people – Labour’s probably doing well among – and the Lib Dems are doing well – but not in big enough numbers to deny the Tories a majority.
GB: You are obviously just speaking [unintelligible], but I’m reasonably confident and certainly optimistic that the Tories will be a majority. But I just think that if Corbyn became prime minister, and if it is any sort of… basically if the Tories got anything less than 350 I don’t see how he can’t be prime minister.
I just think the cost would be so – within the first 24 hours Sterling goes down from a minute past 10 on the exit poll on the Thursday, stock markets crash, or at least any company that is renationalised or supplies companies that get nationalised loses a ton of value first thing in the morning, all Five Eyes guys start making noises about pulling back in the morning. That is before he has even got his seals of office.
I don’t think it is likely, I think it’s like a 10 per cent chance, maybe more, of having a workable administration. But the cost is – we have talked about this before, he’s just not up to it. What I said before about having tickets booked on Eurostar for 22.50 that night if he comes in. We are trying to work out what we could put in the suitcase to get out the country, because you know capital controls come in.
JA: I just can’t see it happening… the electoral map is being very topsy-turvy because of Brexit and because of Corbyn.
The question is for Labour, it gets itself a half-decent leader next time round, whether it can reverse and regain its traditional heartland seats.
GB: I think if Labour had a half decent leader two years ago you’d be 40 points ahead. But is there any reassurance you can give me as to what would sensible Labour MPs do to stop Corbyn getting the seals of office? Is there anything that would happen or is it just…
JA: God knows… because we ****** it up. We ****** it up in 2016 when we went too early. People like me were internally saying this isn’t the right moment, but I got ignored.
GB: What happens if, say tomorrow, Trump says something ludicrous, there is a big swing in the polls and Tuesday next week, Labour is two points up? What would you do? Ride it out?
JA: Yeah, but I don’t think we are going to get there. I just can’t see it. It’s not going to happen.
GB: If you got in [inaudible]…
JA: I don’t know. On the security stuff I have worked in Number 10 I think the machine will pretty quickly move to safeguard security things, the civil service machine.
GB: They wouldn’t let him see stuff?
JA: You know, it is not going to happen. I just cannot see it happening. I just cannot see it happening. Not the way things are going at the moment.
GB: I know what you mean and I appreciate the point about Canterbury being a bit different. Canterbury is kind of turning into Islington on Sea because of all the people coming down from London.
JA: I have been going round these national places. It is dire for Labour. It is dire. Our strategy is just to try and help as many of my colleagues back over the line banging on about the NHS in their areas for them. It is awful for them and it is the combination of Corbyn and Brexit.
GB: If it works out alright, and I assume we both hope, and there is some sort of workable majority for Johnson, how long do you reckon it will take Labour to get its act back together and get rid of Corbyn? At the moment you guys are just all over the ******* place.
JA: I know. I know. Well that is the thing that a lot of us are.. It is on our minds.