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5 September 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:20pm

Why Jess Phillips’ brilliant speech condemning Boris Johnson upset me

The Labour MP slammed No 10’s dismissal of Tory rebels from the party – but she didn’t defect from Labour when her colleagues felt forced to leave.

By Daniel Sugarman

In the UK’s current political climate, as Westminster grapples over Brexit, it is rare to see a speech from a backbench MP that has real cut-through with the public.

Last night, however, was one of those moments. Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, gave an excoriating speech in which she accused Tory MPs of cowardice for their public silence, after 21 of their colleagues were stripped of the whip for voting against the government.

“You know what has happened over here. It’s like [if] they were kicking out Harriet Harman [out of our party], that is what it feels like,” she thundered.

“It is an abomination the way your party has behaved. And you’ve all crowed and given sympathy to me about the problems that we have in the Labour party and you’ve just sat by silently while your colleagues have been marched out.”

The speech was widely praised. One former Tory MP lauded Phillips as a “human blowtorch”. She was described as future prime ministerial material, as someone exhibiting a “politics driven by passion and principle and integrity and an unflinching commitment to doing the right thing”.

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One partner in a high-profile consultant firm specialising in public policy noted: “An interesting thing: Jess Phillips’ name is starting to get mentioned spontaneously in focus groups.”

I have admired Phillips for a number of years, particularly her forthrightness and willingness to say what many politicians, as she pointed out in her speech, will not.

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But her speech last night upset me. Harman may not have been kicked out of Labour, but eight months ago, a Jewish MP was hounded out of the party, all but forced to leave.

Luciana Berger, who suffered horrendous anti-Semitic abuse from Labour members while watching her party’s leadership do nothing to stop it, described in her resignation speech how she could not remain “in a party that I have today come to the sickening conclusion is institutionally anti-Semitic”.

What had the reaction of Phillips, so vehemently chastising Tory colleagues across the aisle, been then?

On Twitter, I wondered whether her response had been “a few sympathetic ‘solidarity’ tweets”. That was incorrect, I found. Phillips did discuss it at the time – yet what she said looks now even more damning.

“Anyone would find it hard to disagree with the stuff that was being said about anti-Semitism,” she told Cathy Newman of Channel 4, who then asked whether she had a red line herself with regards to leaving Labour.

“My red line is Luciana’s red line; my red line is the anti-Semitism,” she responded, before calling for action from Jeremy Corbyn.

“I think that there’s an opportunity for him, directly him… to really come out very, very strongly and say things like ‘George Galloway would never be welcome in our party.’ To say things like ‘what happened with the Labour party students this week, when they put ‘Palestine Lives’ at the announcement of Joan Ryan leaving, that that is anti-Semitic and it has to stop’.”

She said she wanted the Labour leader to be “really vocal and stop feeling like he had to keep that constituency of the Labour party happy and to show real strength. And if that doesn’t happen, if people who write those sorts of things on Twitter feel that they can still be part of the Labour party, then that would absolutely be my red line…

“I can’t stand in an election for a party that I think is racist and at the moment I think that we have a chance to undo some of the terrible anti-Semitism that’s been going on in the Labour party.”

Eight months later, Brexit may be dominating the headlines, but the truth is that very little has changed in the Labour party. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is now investigating the Labour party for anti-Semitism.

A series of whistleblowers from Labour’s compliance unit have come forward and described how Corbyn’s allies meddled in the party’s disciplinary processes.

It was recently reported that a Labour member who had said Phillips herself had been paid “£1 million” by the Israeli lobby had, eight months later, finally been expelled from the party. In a post written yesterday, the expelled member said: “I have just been expelled for writing similar posts which other people wrote.”

On that, at least, he was not wrong – every week turns up more Labour members who have said things about Jews which would be well-received at Nazi rallies.

Recently it emerged that, after thousands of instances of anti-Semitism and hundreds of complaints, over a three-year period Labour had expelled fewer than 20 people.

What happened Ms Phillips’ red line? Where has it gone?

There are people I admire who argue that calling out Labour MPs seen as allies of the Jewish community is unwise, because if they go they will only be replaced by overtly hostile Corbynite apparatchiks.

But for me, increasingly, it comes down to this – is a person going to campaign, in an election setting, for an outcome where Corbyn becomes prime minister?

And if the answer is “yes”, then any number of supportive words, or indeed criticisms of Corbyn himself, don’t mean much – neither to me nor a significant number of British Jews, more than 85 per cent of whom believe Corbyn is anti-Semitic.

In her speech in the Commons on Wednesday, Phillips said of Boris Johnson: “There’s literally no distance that I could trust him.” That is exactly how the vast majority of British Jews view Corbyn.

Is there much difference between an MP who says nothing when a colleague is forced out of the party, and an MP who does say something but then actually does nothing?

I hope I am wrong – that Phillips does decide her red line has been breached and leaves Labour. Today Berger announced she would be joining the Liberal Democrats – I find it very hard to imagine that Phillips, who won her seat from the Lib Dems in 2015, would consider doing the same.

But attacking Tory MPs for their lacklustre response to the treatment of their former party compatriots, while having taken no concrete action when a Jewish MP felt compelled to leave your own party because of anti-Semitism, suggests a need for some serious self-analysis.

Daniel Sugarman is a journalist for the Jewish Chronicle. He tweets @Daniel_Sugarman.