Keir Starmer had his response ready. Then came Corbyn's post

Rajeev Syal and Jessica Elgot
·6-min read

Jeremy Corbyn walked out of a community centre in Crouch End, north London, at just after 1pm on Thursday to learn from a journalist that he had been suspended from the Labour party.

The man who was Labour party leader as recently as April had not received a telephone call or text to let him know that the whip had been taken away from him.

Corbyn found out after recording a television clip reacting to the highly critical report from the equalities watchdog released that morning. A Labour MP since 1983, Corbyn froze for a moment in the chill October wind before moving swiftly on.

Action had been taken against Corbyn, MP for Islington North, because of a Facebook post, released that morning, in which he claimed that the problem of antisemitism was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and the media.

Related: Jeremy Corbyn to fight suspension from Labour after EHRC antisemitism report comments – politics live

It was a crucial moment in a turbulent 24 hours when the faultlines within the Labour party were exposed by the conclusions of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report.

The move led to warnings from left-leaning union leaders and MPs, who said they would fight to keep the Corbyn project alive.

There had been no hint of what was to come on Wednesday evening when Corbyn, Keir Starmer, the party’s new leader, and his deputy, Angela Rayner, discussed their respective plans for responding to the report.

Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, had read the findings in their entirety and was ready to make an unqualified apology for the party’s failings. His allies believe he had little choice, given the report’s damning conclusions. Labour, it said, was responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination over antisemitism. It cited “serious failings in the Labour party leadership in addressing antisemitism and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints”.

Starmer knew that Labour, only the second political party after the BNP to be investigated by the body, was about to be served with an unlawful act notice and had until 10 December to draft an action plan to implement a series of changes.

During the talks on Wednesday, Starmer spoke directly to Corbyn in what was described as a “friendly and professional” conversation. Corbyn’s team say they were told that they would be given prior sight of Starmer’s statement.

Discussions also took place about whether Starmer and the party’s general secretary, David Evans, had any intention of taking disciplinary action against Corbyn. According to his team, the former Labour leader received reassurances that action was not planned. However, sources close to Starmer insist nothing was agreed or planned with Corbyn in advance.

The report was released at 10am the following day as scheduled, and it made for painful reading. Headlines travelled across the world stating that the UK Labour party, which founded the EHRC and has been at the forefront of fighting racism since its foundation, had unlawfully discriminated against Jewish members.

Corbyn’s team had prepared their response but had still not received any notification of Starmer’s speech, it is claimed.

At 10.36am, Corbyn’s statement was published. He wrote he had been obstructed by party officials in trying to tackle the issue. The statement said: “One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.

“That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated. My sincere hope is that relations with Jewish communities can be rebuilt and those fears overcome. While I do not accept all of its findings, I trust its recommendations will be swiftly implemented to help move on from this period.”

Starmer’s staffers were stunned. Within minutes, Starmer was due to speak directly to the nation at a televised press conference to apologise for failing to tackle antisemitism. He had little time to adjust a prepared speech, and chose not to. At 11am, he appeared before TV cameras, saying that those who “deny there is a problem are part of the problem … those who pretend it is exaggerated or factional are part of the problem”.

Reporters at the press conference asked about Corbyn’s response to the report, questioning whether the MP would be suspended for saying that the allegations had been “exaggerated”. Starmer said he would “look carefully” at them.

By 12.15pm Corbyn had arrived in Crouch End to record interviews with broadcasters. Again, he said he disagreed with a number of the report’s points and repeatedly said that the number of antisemitism cases had been “exaggerated”.

The decision to suspend Corbyn was taken by Evans, rather than Starmer. Just after 1pm a statement was released by Labour suspending him from the party and stripping him of the party whip.

“In light of his comments made today and his failure to retract them subsequently, the Labour party has suspended Jeremy Corbyn pending investigation,” a spokesperson said.

Corbyn’s allies said if Starmer’s office had shared his speech they would have seen the leader’s plan to refer to “exaggerated claims”, and would have modified Corbyn’s statement.

In a later Facebook statement, Corbyn wrote: “I will strongly contest the political intervention to suspend me. I’ve made absolutely clear that those who deny there has been an antisemitism problem in the Labour party are wrong.

“It’s … undeniable that a false impression has been created of the number of members accused of antisemitism, as polling shows: that is what has been overstated, not the seriousness of the problem.”

Allies of Corbyn last night condemned the move and urged Starmer to allow him back into the party.

John McDonnell, who served as shadow chancellor throughout Corbyn’s tenure as leader, said the party’s decision should be overturned. “On the day we should all be moving forward and taking all steps to fight antisemitism, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn is profoundly wrong.”

Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, said the suspension appeared to contradict one of the report’s key recommendations – to remove the leader’s office from party investigations – and warned of chaos across the movement.

McCluskey said: “It is also an act of grave injustice which, if not reversed, will create chaos within the party and in doing so compromise Labour’s chances of a general election victory.”

Many others in the parliamentary party and across the shadow cabinet supported the move. One shadow cabinet member said this could be “a clause 4 moment for Keir”.

Rayner said Corbyn had “an absolute blind spot” on appreciating the scale of the problem of antisemitism. “I’m devastated that it’s come to this. Today should be about really listening, reading and taking in the report,” she said.

His suspension was welcomed by Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said: “Having presided over the descent of a proudly anti-racist party into a party that broke equalities law in its treatment of Jews, his shameless comments today showed that he remains part of the problem.”