Gloves are off – campaign enters ‘sleazeball country’

News Westminster

Labour’s shadow health secretary has tried to brush off his highly damaging comments about Jeremy Corbyn as “banter” and “joshing around” with someone he thought was his “mate”.

The Tory supporting Guido Fawkes website published the leaked recording of a private conversation between Jonathan Ashworth and his long time friend Greig Baker – a Conservative party activist and former chairman of the Canterbury Conservative Association.

The story – described by Piers Morgan as “the scoop of the election” – has shifted the focus from Boris Johnson’s disastrous encounter with a journalist yesterday when the prime minister refused to look at a photograph of a four year boy being treated on a hospital floor, and has derailed Labour’s attempts to keep the campaign focus on the NHS.

‘Tory sting’

In the private conversation with Baker, Ashworth said a Labour victory (in Thursday’s election) was not going to happen and described the situation in Labour’s heartlands as dire, blaming Corbyn and Brexit as the reasons for it.

The BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith described the leak of the secret recording to Guido Fawkes as “a Tory sting” and a “pretty low thing to do”.

He added: “It strikes me as pretty sleazeball country to do that to a friend, and it would seem that they are, actually, or were, I should say, good friends.”

Smith took Ashworth’s interview slot on BBC 5 Live’s Emma Barnett Show after the shadow cabinet minister was stood down following his interview on BBC 1’s Victoria Derbyshire which confronted the shadow health secretary about the leak.

‘Supposed to be mates’

Ashworth said he was “joshing around” with a friend and engaging in “banter”.

“We are supposed to be mates,” he told Derbyshire, adding, “I’m not going to go for a drink with him again.”

Derbyshire asked whether he said there was no way Labour was going to win the election and that “Boris Johnson will have to ‘eff’ it up not to win.”

“Of course I said it,” replied Ashworth. “I’m winding him up.”

Derbyshire continued: “You said: “The party effed it up when they chose Corbyn”, to which Ashworth replied: “Of course I don’t mean it,” adding, “if you leak it to Guido Fawkes of course it makes me look like a right plonker, but it’s not what I mean when I’m winding up a friend.”

Baker is chief exec of political intelligence agency

Smith said he didn’t know if Baker – who, according to his Twitter profile is also chief executive of a political intelligence agency – “had been put up to it” saying the recording sounded like it was made a few days ago. “But it’s pretty low, let’s be honest.”

The Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges tweeted: “Politics is a rough business. And it’s legitimate and right for @GuidoFawkes to publish the tape. But whoever stitched up John Ashworth is a proper reptile.”

The leak is huge succour for the Tories following yesterday’s (Monday) derailing of their campaign when Johnson’s refusal to look at a photo of a four year boy getting treatment on a hospital floor was seized upon by Labour as emblematic of how the Conservatives treat the NHS.

PM’s dead cat tactic

The PM was wounded by the encounter and later announced, out of blue, the possibility of scrapping the BBC licence fee, which was immediately denounced by Labour’s Tom Watson as a “dead cat tactic” to try and shift attention by pointing at something else.

“This is a pathetic attempt by Boris Johnson to distract from his refusal to even look at the picture of a four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital floor” said Watson.

“We already know that Boris Johnson is a danger to our NHS. His comments today reveal that he will threaten the very existence of another of Britain’s great institutions, the BBC, by scrapping its funding mechanism.”

Neutralised Labour’s NHS attack

As shadow health secretary, Ashworth should be fronting Labour’s attack on the Tories’ NHS record and policy but he has been effectively neutralised by the leak which has proved far more effective than Johnson’s threat to the BBC licence fee in shifting the media’s focus.

The past 24 hours have demonstrated once again how unforeseen events can take over even the most choreographed campaign plans.

Polling stations open at 7am on Thursday (December 12) and it’s likely most strategists will not be able to fully relax until they close at 10pm.

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