John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has made an impassioned plea for Labour supporters to stop “trying to destroy our party just to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn” after it was claimed a member of his staff broke into a rival MP’s office.
Pausing in the middle of a live television interview and asking “what camera am I on?”, McDonnell issued a direct appeal to Corbyn’s opponents after being questioned over the allegedly illegal intrusion in Seema Malhotra’s Westminster office.
Malhotra, the former shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, had claimed on Saturday that a member of McDonnell’s staff gained entry to her office without her permission, and had lodged a formal complaint with the speaker of the House of Commons.
“My office manager has apologised,” McDonnell said about the alleged incident, which Malhotra said amounted to intimidation and harassment of her workers and illegal and unauthorised entry into her Westminster office.
Breaking with the traditional question and answer format of the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, the shadow chancellor turned to the camera and said: “Let me say this: we’ve got to stop this now. There is a small group out there willing to destroy our party just to get rid of Jeremy.”
Dismissing the allegations and turning the claims of harassment over to Malhotra, he added: “Don’t pick on staff who can’t defend [themselves].”
Earlier in the same interview, McDonnell had told Marr: “Seema is a friend, I asked Jeremy to appoint her. I think she’s very talented. I find this distressing ... Seema resigned a month ago. A month later we thought she’d moved out.”
He said his office manager had thought the room was empty so went in, and then went back the next morning, to find Malhotra’s staff there. He said she apologised, adding that his colleague had taken her complaint to the Speaker of the Commons but not to him.
“I have a member of staff, a widow with daughters. She is now worried she will lose her job and face prosecution because it is being described as break-in. My office said it was an error, a month after we thought she’d moved out,” he added.
Malhotra’s claims do not match up with McDonnell’s, and her team strongly denies any sort of bullying or intimidation by them, pointing out that they have gone out of their way not to identify the member of staff in McDonnell’s office.
But they argue that entering her room without permission was wrong and without precedent. Malhotra has warned of a “breach of parliamentary privilege” along with “aggressive and intimidating” behaviour from Corbyn’s office manager, Karie Murphy, who tried to use a keycard to enter the room on 15 July when it was empty.
The attempt failed, but later on the same day a member of McDonnell’s staff was able to access the room with a different keycard, although Malhotra has not released the name of the individual involved.
“I have discovered that members of staff working for John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have gained unauthorised entry into my office in parliament,” she said in a statement. “The implications of this are extremely serious. This is a breach of parliamentary privilege and is a violation of the privacy, security and confidentiality of a member of parliament’s office.
“Furthermore, my staff, including an intern, who have always been courteous and open, have felt harassed, intimidated and insecure and decided themselves it would be best to not leave anyone alone in the office.
“I have made a formal complaint to the Speaker of the Commons and to Jeremy Corbyn MP, and requested an investigation into how this could have happened.”
Sources in the Labour leadership team have suggested that Malhotra should have vacated the room that is dedicated to a member of the shadow cabinet team. But her team pointed out that she was waiting for a new location to move to, adding that she had offered to swap with her successor as shadow chief secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey.
They say that they had spoken regularly to both Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s teams about the situation and so it was known that they were still there.
Since the police search of the new work and pensions minister Damian Green’s office when he was an opposition MP in 2008, it has been accepted that only a search warrant can justify an entry of a parliamentary office without the wishes of an MP.
McDonnell used the Marr interview to admit that both he and Corbyn had got things wrong. “We’ve made mistakes – I’m the first to admit that, me more than Jeremy I think. Tell us what we’ve done wrong, where we can be better. We have got a responsibility on our shoulders,” he said.
He said MPs were good people who would respect the outcome of the leadership contest if Corbyn won. “We will have a proper political debate and come to a democratic decision. Members of the parliamentary party are good people. They are democrats, they will respect that decision,” he said, arguing that there could be mediated negotiations to heal rifts in the party.
Responding to MPs who have warned of death threats from Corbyn supporters, he said anyone guilty of intimidation should be “kicked out of the party”, but hinted that he believed the only people threatening to split Labour were those opposing the current leadership.
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Daniel Boffey, for theguardian.com on Sunday 24th July 2016 11.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010