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Tory leaflets "falsely claim" Labour MPs in Stoke voted against Brexit

Local MPs Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello have sought legal advice. 

The Conservative campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central could face a legal challenge after a mailshot claimed two of the city’s Labour MPs – both of whom voted for Article 50 – had “voted against” Theresa May’s Brexit plan. 

It is understood that both Stoke North’s Ruth Smeeth and Stoke South’s Rob Flello have sought legal advice.

A Tory leaflet in which the Prime Minister addresses voters in the by-election accuses the two MPs of trying to block Brexit in the Commons last week.

Yet while the decision to vote for the Article 50 bill divided Labour, both Smeeth and Flello voted with the government to begin the process of Brexit.

The letter reads:

“Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party can’t agree whether they want to take control of our laws and our borders. They seem to be intent on finding new ways of frustrating the process of leaving. Last week, Stoke’s two other Labour MPs and the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme [Paul Farrelly, who voted against Article 50] all voted against my plan to deliver Brexit.”

In response, Smeeth tweeted that she was "utterly disgusted" that Theresa May had "lied" about her voting record. A Labour source said the MP, a senior figure in Labour’s by-election campaign, has written to the prime minister to demand a public apology and retraction. 

The Conservatives maintain the letters are only referring to MPs' support for amendments to the bill.

A similar leaflet was delivered to homes in Copeland, where Labour faces another crucial by-election next Thursday. It also accused neighbouring Labour MPs of voting to block Brexit the day before last Wednesday’s Article 50 vote. Neither John Woodcock nor Sue Hayman, the MPs for the adjacent constituencies of Barrow-in-Furness and Workington, voted against Article 50. 

The leaflets matter because both constituencies voted decisively for Brexit – Stoke was 70 per cent Leave, and Copeland 62 per cent. The Prime Minister’s uncompromising rhetoric on the EU has featured prominently in the Tories’ campaign material.

With Labour's existential bind on Brexit increasingly apparent, the row provides an early indication of the sort of campaigns Labour MPs of all stripes will face in leave constituencies at the next general election. 

Sue Hayman, the Workington MP and shadow environment secretary, said she was disappointed that the Tories had tried to spin her votes for Labour amendments to the Article 50 bill as attempts to block Brexit. She said: "I'm disappointed that the Conservatives are trying to claim that Cumbria's Labour MPs are blocking Brexit. While I campaigned for a Remain vote last year, I of course accept the democratic result of the country and of my constituency, which voted to Leave the EU.

"That is why I voted for the bill to trigger Article 50 at both second and third readings in the House of Commons. However, nobody voted to leave the EU in order to make our country or economy poorer, which is why last week I voted for Labour amendments to the Bill on a range of issues, including our continuing membership of Euratom, which was supported by the nuclear industry that is so important to my constituency."

Defending the controversial campaign tactic, a Conservative spokesman said both MPs had backed amendments to the Article 50 bill that “would have put restrictions on the Prime Minister’s negotiation position and curbed her ability to negotiate the very best deal for Britain”.

He said: “The Prime Minister has set out a clear plan for Brexit which Jeremy Corbyn's Labour MPs, including the two Labour MPs in Stoke-on-Trent and the Labour MP in Newcastle-under-Lyme, tried to block or delay in Parliament. Only Jack Brereton will back the Prime Minister’s clear plan to deliver a successful Brexit for Stoke-on-Trent and the United Kingdom.”

A Downing Street spokesperson also confirmed that the letters were intended to refer to Labour MPs' votes for amendments to the bill, and not votes against the bill itself. 

 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.