Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer broke cover to defend his handling of the row over the party’s candidate for the Rochdale by-election making anti-Semitic comments about Gaza war.

Sir Keir this afternoon faced the cameras for the first time since Azhar Ali was revealed to have claimed Israel ‘deliberately allowed’ Hamas’s October 7 massacre.

Party factions were at war today over a belated decision to cut ties with Mr Ali, with left-wingers claiming he was given preferential treatment.

Sir Keir Starmer’s top team finally withdrew backing from Azhar Ali more than 24 hours after it was revealed he claimed Israel ‘deliberately allowed’ Hamas’s October 7 massacre.

But they only acted after being informed of further allegations by the Daily Mail, having previously tried to weather the storm by insisting his apology on Sunday night was enough.

Sir Keir’s team had rallied behind the councillor – claiming he had simply fallen for an ‘online conspiracy theory’ and that it was ‘out of character’ for him to be anti-Semitic.

Speaking to broadcasters on a visit to Wellingborough on Tuesday, the Labour leader denied that factionalism played a role, saying it makes ‘no difference to me where somebody stands in the Labour Party’.

‘Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action,’ he said.

‘It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election.

‘It’s a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership I mean it.’

Sir Keir this afternoon faced the cameras for the first time since Azhar Ali was revealed to have claimed Israel ‘deliberately allowed’ Hamas ‘s October 7 massacre.

Sir Keir Starmer's top team finally withdrew backing from Azhar Ali more than 24 hours after it was revealed he claimed Israel 'deliberately allowed' Hamas 's October 7 massacre.

Sir Keir Starmer’s top team finally withdrew backing from Azhar Ali more than 24 hours after it was revealed he claimed Israel ‘deliberately allowed’ Hamas ‘s October 7 massacre. 

But they only acted after being informed of further allegations by the Daily Mail, having previously tried to weather the storm by insisting his apology on Sunday night was enough.

But they only acted after being informed of further allegations by the Daily Mail, having previously tried to weather the storm by insisting his apology on Sunday night was enough.

Diane Abbott

Kate Osamor

The party recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, for which she later apologised. Veteran MP Diane Abbott also had the whip withdrawn immediately after suggesting Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism ‘all their lives’ in a letter to the Observer last year.

Today a top lawyer who investigated anti-Semitism in the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership branded its handling of the row as ‘shambolic’.

Martin Forde KC told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme MPs were were questioning why Mr Ali was given time when other more leftwing backbenchers accused of anti-Semitism were not.

‘If you want a fair and transparent system then it has to deal with people consistently,’ he said.

‘I’m aware from discussions with some of the MPs within the party – who might be described as left-leaning – that they feel that when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them then things move rather slowly, but if you’re in the right faction of the party, as it were, then things are dealt with either more leniently or more swiftly.’

The party recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, for which she later apologised.

Veteran MP Diane Abbott also had the whip withdrawn immediately after suggesting Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism ‘all their lives’ in a letter to the Observer last year.

Meanwhile local Tory MPs have written to Labour chairwoman Anneliese Dodds demanding to know if any senior figures were at the October 31 meeting where the comments were made.  

Members have discussed backing Reform's Simon Danczuk, who was previously a Labour MP in the town, after being ordered to stop supporting Mr Ali's campaign

Members have discussed backing Reform’s Simon Danczuk, who was previously a Labour MP in the town, after being ordered to stop supporting Mr Ali’s campaign

Mr Galloway, who is also a former Labour MP and Celebrity Big Brother contestant, is making his latest attempt to win a Westminster seat at a by-election.

Mr Galloway, who is also a former Labour MP and Celebrity Big Brother contestant, is making his latest attempt to win a Westminster seat at a by-election.

The group, which includes former ministers Ben Wallace and Jake Berry, wrote: ‘Engaging in such conspiracy theories is clearly dangerous. Not only does it speak to Mr Ali’s unsuitability for public office, but it also reduces the scope for legitimate criticism of Israel based in fact. 

‘That these comments were made in private but not publicly raises the possibility that Labour candidates are not being honest with the public about their views, towing the party line for political patronage but saying the opposite when it suits them.’

It came as Labour activists consider a desperate move to support Reform in the upcoming Rochdale by-election to stop George Galloway winning.

Members have discussed backing Reform’s Simon Danczuk, who was previously a Labour MP in the town, after being ordered to stop supporting Mr Ali. 

Mr Galloway, who is also a former Labour MP and Celebrity Big Brother contestant, is making his latest attempt to win a Westminster seat at a by-election. A strident critic of Israel and the West he has previously won in historically Labour areas with sizeable Muslim populations, including Bradford West and Bethnal Green and Bow in east London.

Last night local Labour activists told the Guardian:  ‘Simon may be the best way of keeping [George Galloway] out. It’s the devil and the deep blue sea.’

Labour’s former director of policy has said the party’s handling of Azhar Ali’s alleged anti-Semitic comments ‘revealed a double standard’.

Andrew Fisher’s comments came after former MP Dame Louise Ellman told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I was very shocked when I read about and heard Azhar Ali’s comments, and I was very shocked because they were really at odds with my experience of him over a period of 20 years, where he consistently spoke out against extremism, against antisemitism.

‘When I looked at his apology I could see that it was a proper apology, (he) apologised for what he said, not apologising for the words, or (like) some people say, for any offence caused.’

Mr Fisher, former director of policy under Jeremy Corbyn, responded on Today: ‘(The treatment of Mr Ali) revealed a double standard. I think you’ve heard that from Louise Ellman just now, she very openly said I worked with him, he was an ally of mine, we gave him the benefit of the doubt.

‘That doesn’t apply to people who are on the left, ever, and that’s the double standard.

‘These disciplinary processes are used for factional reasons within the Labour Party and that results in people like Azhar Ali being given the benefit of the doubt, being backed up by shadow cabinet ministers on the radio. Shadow cabinet ministers still going out campaigning for him on Sunday.’

Meanwhile, senior Labour frontbenchers today refused to face the media to answer questions about the saga. 

Housing minister Lee Rowley accused Labour of ‘going to ground’ after no shadow minister appeared on Tuesday’s morning media round.

Mr Rowley told Sky News: ‘I mean, where is Labour? Where’s Labour today? Talking to people like yourselves, they’re not doing it. They’re going to ground.’

It was put to Mr Rowley that he was on ‘dodgy ground’ accusing another party of going to ground when the Government is ‘not always around’, to which he replied: ‘That is a party which has not changed. It’s a party which will say anything to win government, and I hope people are watching.

‘They’ve got no plan and they’re getting themselves into a real mess over things like this.’

Late last night Labour confirmed it had withdrawn support for the Rochdale by-election candidate ‘following new information’.

The Mail had obtained a full audio tape of his comments during a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party shortly after the October 7 attacks. 

As well as having told the meeting that Israel allowed the massacre to happen so it could wage war on Gaza, Mr Ali apparently also:

  • Blamed ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian Labour MP;
  • Said Israel planned to ‘get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza’ and ‘grab’ some of the land;
  • Boasted about preventing Israeli flags being flown from local public buildings after the October 7 attacks.

The new disclosures ramped up pressure on Sir Keir to disown the wannabe MP. In the recording, Mr Ali appeared to blame the media for the suspension of Andy McDonald from the Labour Party. 

Mr McDonald, the MP for Middlesbrough, used the phrase ‘between the river and the sea’ last year. The slogan has been described as ‘a staple of anti-Semitic discourse’.

But in the recording, Mr Ali said Mr McDonald ‘shouldn’t have been suspended’ before adding: ‘The media – and some of the people in the media from certain Jewish quarters – were giving crap about what he said.’

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism includes making ‘stereotypical allegations about Jews’ – such as ‘Jews controlling the media’.

Mr Ali’s comments were made at the same meeting in which he said Israel effectively sanctioned the Hamas atrocity against its own people to get the ‘green light’ to invade Gaza.

He later admitted his comments were ‘inexcusable’ and apologised after being confronted by The Mail on Sunday, which first reported the story. 

At the meeting, he also said: ‘Israel has that plan, which is to get rid of [the Palestinians] from Gaza, push them out… 

‘And then they’ve got Gaza to themselves, and you know, they’ll say because the security risks to Israel and the Jewish state, you know, we can’t come back. So we’ve actually said that, in our letter, (this) is about a land grab.’

Mr Ali's (left) comments were made at the same meeting in which he said Israel effectively sanctioned the Hamas atrocity against its own people to get the 'green light' to invade Gaza

Mr Ali’s (left) comments were made at the same meeting in which he said Israel effectively sanctioned the Hamas atrocity against its own people to get the ‘green light’ to invade Gaza

The new disclosures ramped up pressure on Sir Keir to disown the wannabe MP. In the recording, Mr Ali appeared to blame the media for the suspension of Andy McDonald (pictured) from the Labour Party

The new disclosures ramped up pressure on Sir Keir to disown the wannabe MP. In the recording, Mr Ali appeared to blame the media for the suspension of Andy McDonald (pictured) from the Labour Party

Last night Rishi Sunak (pictured) accused Labour of having only dropped Mr Ali 'under media pressure, not because it was the right thing to do'

Last night Rishi Sunak (pictured) accused Labour of having only dropped Mr Ali ‘under media pressure, not because it was the right thing to do’

Last night Rishi Sunak accused Labour of having only dropped Mr Ali ‘under media pressure, not because it was the right thing to do’.

He said Sir Keir’s claims to have changed the Labour Party had proven ‘simply not true’, given that its candidate was caught ‘spreading the vilest racist conspiracy theories about Jews’.

The Prime Minister said on GB News: ‘We’ve just seen over the last few days – Keir Starmer has been running around for the last year telling everybody Labour’s changed – look what just happened in Rochdale.

‘A candidate saying the most vile, awful anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And what happened? He stood by him, sent cabinet ministers to support him. 

‘Until, as apparently five minutes before I walked on tonight, under enormous media pressure, he’s decided to change his mind.

‘That’s not principled, that’s not principled at all. It’s a con.’

The deadline to remove Mr Ali from the ballot paper has passed, leading to the highly unusual situation where Labour cannot replace him as the party’s candidate. 

He will remain on the ballot paper as a Labour candidate, but if he wins, he would sit in the Commons as an independent MP without the whip.

Labour said last night: ‘Following new information about further comments made by Azhar Ali coming to light today, the Labour Party has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali as our candidate in the Rochdale by-election.’

Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden told the Mail: ‘Sir Keir knew about his racist Labour candidate’s views for days. Still, Sir Keir sent his people out to defend him. 

‘Who knows how long other people in Labour knew about this racist anti-Semitism and said nothing either because they think the same or dared not speak out. It’s not out of principle but only due to pressure that Sir Keir has acted.

Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden (pictured) told the Mail: 'Sir Keir knew about his racist Labour candidate's views for days. Still, Sir Keir sent his people out to defend him'

Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden (pictured) told the Mail: ‘Sir Keir knew about his racist Labour candidate’s views for days. Still, Sir Keir sent his people out to defend him’

Before the U-turn, Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds (pictured) said he believed Mr Ali had fallen for 'an online conspiracy theory'

Before the U-turn, Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds (pictured) said he believed Mr Ali had fallen for ‘an online conspiracy theory’

But Home Secretary James Cleverly (pictured) said: 'I'm not sure 'our candidate believed and repeated a vile and clearly anti-Semitic smear that he saw on the internet' is quite the defence Labour think it is'

But Home Secretary James Cleverly (pictured) said: ‘I’m not sure ‘our candidate believed and repeated a vile and clearly anti-Semitic smear that he saw on the internet’ is quite the defence Labour think it is’

Labour MP Rosie Duffield (pictured) said the party should have withdrawn its support for Mr Ali sooner. She told GB News: 'I think the dithering was quite embarrassing'

Labour MP Rosie Duffield (pictured) said the party should have withdrawn its support for Mr Ali sooner. She told GB News: ‘I think the dithering was quite embarrassing’

‘Starmer is a moral vacuum. Sir Keir has failed to change his party, in fact he’s been defending a racist hoping the outrage went away and only acted when he had no choice.’

A spokesman for Campaign Against Antisemitism said: ‘Rather than appearing as a principled decision, Labour’s withdrawal of support for its candidate at this late stage just looks as expedient as the failed attempt to defend him. It is the worst of all worlds for Labour.’

Before the U-turn, Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds said he believed Mr Ali had fallen for ‘an online conspiracy theory’. 

But Home Secretary James Cleverly said: ‘I’m not sure ‘our candidate believed and repeated a vile and clearly anti-Semitic smear that he saw on the internet’ is quite the defence Labour think it is.’

Labour MP Rosie Duffield said the party should have withdrawn its support for Mr Ali sooner. She told GB News: ‘I think the dithering was quite embarrassing.’

Mr Ali said on Sunday: ‘I apologise unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant and false.’

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