The Labour deputy leader, Angela Rayner, has apologised for calling a Tory MP “scum” in the House of Commons after he criticised her party’s opposition to the government’s handling of the pandemic.
In heated scenes in the chamber during a debate on economic support measures for lockdown areas, the Conservative MP Chris Clarkson broke off from a speech attacking what he characterised as Labour’s “hindsight-heavy” approach and confronted Rayner over whether she had used the slur against him.
As a row erupted, the deputy speaker, Eleanor Laing, intervened by shouting “order” and rebuked Rayner, telling her: “From the frontbench we will not have remarks like that, not under any circumstances, no matter how heartfelt it might be, not at all.”
Tories seized on the incident, with Clarkson later writing to Rayner to demand she say sorry.
As the debacle threatened to overshadow Labour’s attempt to seize the initiative on a day of opposition debates about economic support in lockdown areas and free school meal provision, Rayner issued an apology within hours. In a statement on Wednesday evening, she said: “I apologise for the language that I used in a heated debate in parliament earlier.”
Clarkson had been using his speech to criticise the Greater Manchester Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, over his handling of negotiations with Downing Street for an economic support package, after the talks broke down this week. He then turned his fire on Labour more broadly, characterising the party’s approach as opportunistic.
Clarkson also highlighted comments from the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, who reportedly said last month in reference to the pandemic that Labour should not “let a good crisis go to waste”.
He said: “Today’s last-minute debate has all the hallmarks of the same opportunism … [that] has done so much damage over the past few days. No doubt with a carefully calculated vote at the end designed for release on social media afterwards. I implore members opposite to park the opportunism.
“I know the honourable member for Stretford and Urmston [Green] thinks this is a good crisis which the Labour party should exploit, and I know she speaks for a lot of her frontbench colleagues when she says that. You just need to see it in the support-U-turn- oppose approach that’s categorised their hindsight-heavy behaviour.”
Amid audible heckling in the chamber, Clarkson then broke off to ask of Rayner: “Excuse me, did the honourable lady just call me scum?”
After Laing intervened, Rayner, who earlier in the opposition day debate disclosed that her aunt had died from Covid last week, responded: “I think one of the things I’d ask your guidance on is the honourable member saying things about the frontbench which is inaccurate in their speech and I’d ask them to withdraw it.”
Laing said it was not for the chair to decide what was “accurate or inaccurate” but asked Clarkson to be “reasonable” in what he said and to be “careful of his remarks”, inviting him to withdraw and apologise if he felt he had said anything offensive to Rayner.
Clarkson, the MP for Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester, which is facing tier 3 lockdown restrictions from Friday, said: “I should clarify, I asked the honourable lady if she called me that, that’s what I heard.”
In a later point of order, the Tory MP Katherine Fletcher condemned Rayner, telling the Commons: “Today she has shamed Manchester, shamed this house and she should apologise.”
Clarkson wrote to Rayner following the exchange, calling on her to apologise. “In the spirit of those promises of constructive opposition and in the interest of providing a united front in the battle against coronavirus, I respectfully ask that you retract and apologise for your comments,” he wrote.
Opening the debate, Rayner disclosed her aunt’s death to Covid and thanked hospital staff in Stockport who cared for her, adding: “So I speak today not just as a member of this house, nor as a Mancunian, but as someone who like many others across our city and our country who in the last few weeks have lost loved ones to this terrible virus.
“That more than anything is why I come here not wanting the government to fail but to succeed because lives literally depend on it. And we know that at public health response will only save lives if it is supported by a fair economic settlement.”
Tory MPs rallied behind Downing Street to easily defeat Labour’s motion which had called on the government to publish fair national criteria for financial support in areas enduring tougher lockdown restrictions, to be voted on in parliament, as well as providing workers on the job support scheme at least 80% wage support.
The vote was won by the government by 340 to 261 on Wednesday, with Greater Manchester Tory MPs Chris Green and William Wragg voting with the opposition in favour of the motion.