Ken Livingstone has backtracked on his apology for suggesting shadow defence minister Kevan Jones “might need psychiatric help”, after he was accused of being forced by the Labour leadership to say sorry.
The former London mayor re-ignited a row just hours after tweeting that he “unreservedly apologised” to Jones for telling the Mirror: “I think he might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed … He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”
Livingstone made the remarks after Jones, who experienced depression in 1996, questioned his appointment as co-chair of Labour’s review of Trident.
The veteran Labour politician initially refused to retract his comments, accusing Jones of “wimping around”, telling him to “get over it” and blaming his own south London background for the fact he is rude back when someone is rude to him. But after speaking on the phone to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Livingstone publicly apologised, saying the comments should “not have been made at all, let alone in that context.
“I also make this apology because Jeremy is right to insist on a more civil politics and as a party we should take this seriously,” he added.
Corbyn, a long-time campaigner against stigmatisation of those with mental health problems, is said to be angry and upset about the comments but believed Livingstone’s remorse was “sincere”. But before long, Livingstone was back on the television air waves for a fresh confrontation with Jones on Channel 4 News.
Appearing from his home, he said the apology was made because Corbyn had told him that Jones was “actually quite a decent guy and reminded me that Jeremy’s strategy is that we don’t do all the offensive backstabbing and rows and I just got on board with that”.
He then watered down his apology by saying: “If I’ve upset anyone, I’m really sorry. But this row isn’t something I started. It’s because I was attacked as not fit for this job.”
Livingstone, who got Jones’s name wrong three times by calling him “Jeremy”, added: “You provoked this row. You questioned my ability to do this job. Why didn’t you just pick up the phone and ask me what I knew and understood about it? I’ve been debating military and defence issues for 45 years both in our party and in the media.”
Jones, who was in the Channel 4 studio, responded by accusing Livingstone of having been forced into an apology after causing offence.
“You were somehow excusing it because of your background, when other people had posh educations, which I did not, can I remind you. That does not excuse what you’ve done ... You were not going to unless Jeremy told you to,” he said.
The shadow defence minister also revealed that neither he nor shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle had been told that Livingstone, an opponent of Trident, was to co-chair Labour’s defence review.
“Why announce it on Twitter and use grossly offensive language to myself and millions of other sufferers of mental health [problems] to get over your point?” Jones said. Livingstone countered that he thought Jones’s attack on his fitness for office was “grossly offensive”.
The continuation of the row is likely to make it more difficult for Livingstone to work together with Eagle and Jones, who are both supporters of Trident, on the defence review that will have to come to a conclusion about whether to back renewal of the nuclear deterrent.
There may also be wider foreign policy differences between some of the parliamentary Labour party and Livingstone, who has said western interventions have “come back to haunt us” and told Channel 4 that Britain and America are “totally discredited” because of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Eagle, who recently backed Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton’s criticism of Corbyn’s anti-Trident stance, is said to be furious about the appointment but a source close to the shadow cabinet minister denied suggestions that she was poised to resign.
The source said: “Maria and Ken are co-convening the review and Maria will still be leading it, as was outlined by Jeremy at conference. Trident will be just one of many issues the review will look at; there isn’t a separate review.”
Their working relationship is likely to be made even more difficult by the fact Livingston said Eagle was “being very silly” if she felt aggrieved by an older man being brought in to supervise her work.
Corbyn had hoped to push Labour towards dropping support for Trident at this year’s party conference, but a bid to hold a vote failed after he could not win the support of the major trade unions.
He is hoping the defence review will lead to a change of policy at Labour’s national policy forum, with the appointment of Livingstone creating a balanced ticket on the issue of Trident.
This article was written by Rowena Mason, Nicholas Watt and Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 18th November 2015 21.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010