Ex-Labour MP found guilty over harassment campaign
Facing jail, the jealous Corbynite who made acid threat to lover’s ex: Claudia Webbe’s bizarre attempt to clear her name only served to raise more questions about her suitability for public office, writes TOM RAWSTORNE
- Ex-Labour MP Claudia Webbe, 56, is facing jail over a campaign of harassment
- Court told Leicester East MP made threatening phone calls to Michelle Merritt
- She became suspicious of Ms Merritt’s relationship with partner Lester Thomas
- Sentencing was adjourned until November 4 at Westminster Magistrates’ Court
A Corbynite MP is facing the prospect of jail after being convicted of threatening to attack a female friend of her boyfriend with acid.
Claudia Webbe, 56, who sits in the Commons as an independent after being suspended by Labour, also threatened to share nude pictures of Michelle Merritt, 59, in an 18-month campaign of phone-call harassment.
District Judge Paul Goldspring said the seriousness of her threats ‘crossed the custody threshold’.
Webbe, a close ally of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, could now be forced out as the MP for Leicester East after less than two years in the job.
She will be sentenced on November 4, though her legal team said they would appeal.
MPs are kicked out of their seat if they are sentenced to over a year in jail. Labour called on her to resign last night.
On April 25 last year the Labour MP for Leicester East posted a message on Twitter exhorting the community to do their bit during the first Covid lockdown. ‘We are stronger when we are together and united,’ Claudia Webbe wrote.
A fine sentiment, no doubt, but one that was singularly absent in both the content and tone of a telephone conversation she conducted on the very same day.
‘Get out of my relationship,’ the 56-year-old screamed down the line at Michelle Merritt. ‘I’ve seen all of your posts, I’ve seen all of your naked pictures… Get out of my relationship. Otherwise, I will tell all of your family and I will show them all of your pictures.’
Corbynite MP Claudia Webbe (left) is facing the prospect of jail after being convicted of threatening to attack a female friend of her boyfriend Lester Thomas (right) with acid
So much for togetherness and unity. And so much for Webbe’s public persona as a champion of the sisterhood – on that same Twitter account the Jeremy Corbyn loyalist describes herself as both a socialist and a feminist.
And yet that raging rant wasn’t a one-off. A year previously – on Mother’s Day, no less – she subjected the same woman to a similar tirade of abuse, including what the victim took to be a threat to throw acid at her. ‘You’re a slag,’ Webbe shouted at her. ‘And you should be acid.’
The court heard that Miss Merritt, 59, was so scared by the call that she reported it to police, who warned Webbe not to call her again. But it was claimed the MP ignored that advice, making 16 further calls, many of them silent.
The reason for this 18-month campaign of harassment? Jealousy. Some 15 years previously, Webbe’s boyfriend Lester Thomas, a Chelsea football scout and Crossrail consultant, had dated Miss Merritt.
They remained good friends and would meet up from time to time. But any such meetings would often be followed by another menacing call.
Fearing for her safety after the April episode, Miss Merritt again complained to police, and Webbe was charged with harassment last September.
Ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described Leicester East MP Ms Webbe, 56, (both pictured above) as a ‘warm-hearted person’ who is particularly ‘dedicated’ to issues of social justice
And so it was that just nine months after being elected to Parliament, she was suspended from the Labour Party and had the whip withdrawn.
But rather than standing down, she continued to sit as an independent MP, vowing to ‘vigorously defend’ herself and prove her innocence.
She failed spectacularly on both counts. Yesterday, following a two-day trial, Webbe was convicted of a single charge of harassment at Westminster magistrates’ court.
But that’s not the end of the story. Because Webbe’s bizarre attempt to clear her name has only served to raise more questions about her suitability for public office, which she thus far has refused to relinquish.
Giving evidence, Webbe’s defence was that she never made the first Mother’s Day call – the implication being that her victim had made a false accusation when informing the police.
As for the April call, which had been recorded, she described it as a ‘courtesy call’ and said the threats were in fact not directed at Miss Merritt but at Mr Thomas, who was with her at the time.
Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe (pictured arriving at Westminster Magistrates’ Court), 56, has been found guilty of harassment after threatening to throw acid over a suspected love rival
She told the court that they had been arguing about his failure to observe lockdown rules and that they had been in the midst of a ‘violent’ row.
On the day in question, police had indeed been called to her flat after worried neighbours heard a commotion.
But when officers arrived, Webbe did not lodge a complaint about his behaviour.
The reason? She told the court that she didn’t ‘trust the police to keep black men alive’. Nonetheless, she and Mr Thomas remain together to this day – he even accompanied her to court throughout the trial.
Warning her that she could face jail when she is sentenced next month, chief magistrate Paul Goldspring told the court that her convoluted explanations ‘didn’t bear a ring or note of truth’.
He said: ‘The words that were said are plain, they make clear that Ms Webbe was angry, upset and jealous of the relationship between Michelle Merritt and Mr Thomas.
‘In short, I found Ms Webbe to be vague, inconsistent and at times illogical in her account. It was shaped around the overwhelming evidence against her. She could not honestly answer and ultimately I found her to be untruthful.’
In hindsight, Webbe’s journey to the Commons ticked all the right boxes for the Labour Party under Mr Corbyn.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a righteous cause that she hasn’t thrown her support behind, be it calling for the abolition of grammar schools or opposing the deportation of violent criminals from the UK.
Born in Leicester, Webbe studied social sciences at De Montfort University, before moving on to London to study race and ethnic relations at Birkbeck.
She first achieved some measure of notoriety as an aide to the mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone.
In 2006, he was suspended from office for four weeks after he compared a Jewish journalist to a Nazi guard.
Ms Webbe (pictured with Mr Thomas) is currently sitting as an independent MP for Leicester East after being suspended by the Labour Party who have since called on her to resign her seat
Webbe wrote to The Guardian to say that his suspension ‘smacks in the face of true democracy’ and that his ‘history of work in the anti-racist movement is unquestionable’.
Lest it be forgotten, this is the same Ken Livingstone who a decade later would be suspended from Labour over comments about Hitler and Zionism.
In 2010, Webbe was elected a councillor in the London Borough of Islington where she came into the orbit of local MP Mr Corbyn, moving up through the Labour Party’s ranks after he became leader.
In 2016, with the backing of hard-Left grassroots organisation Momentum, she was elected to Labour’s national executive committee (NEC).
Two years later she was made chairman of Labour’s dispute panel – a role that saw her tasked with deciding whether to refer complaints, including allegations of anti-Jewish behaviour, to the committee that has the power to expel members.
Given her earlier defence of Livingstone, it was an appointment that did not go uncommented upon.
Pictured: Emily Thornberry MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs with Claudia Webbe and Jeremy Corbyn at Labour Party Conference back in 2018
Then, in 2019, Webbe was chosen by the NEC to stand to become an MP in Leicester East.
The sitting MP, veteran Keith Vaz, quit Parliament at the election, having been handed a six-month suspension after being caught offering to buy Class A drugs for male sex workers.
Webbe’s selection was not without controversy. John Thomas, chairman of the Leicester East constituency party, described her selection as a ‘fix and a disgrace’ and promptly resigned from Labour.
Sundip Meghani, who lost out to Webbe in the race for the seat, also did not pull any punches, criticising the ‘dodgy practices and nepotism involved in this process’.
He added: ‘This type of conduct, where a well connected favourite is nodded through, is no better than the Etonian old boys network that Labour seeks to condemn.’
While Webbe went on to win the seat, she did so with a much-reduced majority – cutting Vaz’s 22,000 to one of just over 6,000.
Webbe, a Jeremy Corbyn loyalist, describes herself as both a socialist and a feminist on socials
Of course, those casting their votes had no idea of what was going on in the background at the time, because the campaign of harassment Webbe was charged with covered the period from September 1, 2018, to April 26, 2020.
Throughout this time she was with Mr Thomas, 55, whom she started seeing in 2017.
In May 2018, he joined Webbe to pose for a photo with Mr Corbyn, writing: ‘Watch this space as we fight for our people.’
And when she was charged in September 2020, he was quick to make it clear that he was standing by his girlfriend. ‘Claudia you are the love of my life rest assured our love will never be broken the Lord is our shepherd,’ he wrote.
Despite those supportive words, the picture painted in court of their relationship was somewhat less harmonious. Indeed, he did not give evidence to back up her bizarre claims.
Westminster magistrates heard how Webbe had become ‘obsessed’ with the amount of contact Mr Thomas had with his former girlfriend. It was claimed they met every other week, their relationship being described as that of ‘good friends’.
Pictured: Claudia Webbe leaving Westminster Magistrates’ Court after an earlier hearing
Susannah Stevens, prosecuting, said: ‘The reason for the harassment appeared to be the fact that Miss Merritt was friends with Lester Thomas and this was an issue for the defendant.
‘The harassment initially took the form of telephone calls… The calls were made from a withheld number and were silent calls of short duration.’
But on one occasion in October 2018, the number was visible. Miss Merritt put the number into a search engine and discovered it matched one given for Webbe on Labour Party literature.
She asked a friend to call the number. The MP duly answered, but insisted that Mr Thomas had made the earlier phone call, not her.
The phone calls continued, with the harassment escalating on Mother’s Day 2019 when Webbe actually spoke to Miss Merritt.
Giving evidence from behind a screen, the victim said Webbe told her she was ‘Lester’s girlfriend’ and then shouted: ‘Why are you contacting Lester?’
The 56-year-old independent MP has been warned by magistrates that she faces jail time
Miss Merritt recalled: ‘She was very, very angry at me. It was loud. She then started calling me a slag and saying friends don’t send pictures of their t*** and p**** to other friends, and it culminated in, “You’re a slag and you should be acid”.
‘She confirmed she knew where I lived and would send pictures and videos to my daughters.’
The Crown Prosecution Service said last night that there was no suggestion that the pictures and video were real.
Miss Merritt, an executive assistant, wept as she described how she was left ‘shocked and fearful’, calling police to tell them: ‘I have been threatened by a public figure with acid over the phone.’
She did not want to make a formal complaint, but a Met officer spoke to Webbe in April 2019, warning her to have no further contact. But again the calls continued.
In fact, call data gathered by police showed that 16 calls were made by Webbe to Miss Merritt after April 2019. These calls were of 14 seconds duration or less.
Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court earlier today
On April 25, last year, there were two further calls from Webbe. Miss Merritt called her back. Unknown to Webbe, the threats she then made were being recorded.
The victim later contacted police, giving a full statement. In her evidence, Webbe insisted she did not have a problem with Miss Merritt, adding: ‘I was not jealous’.
The MP point-blank denied making the Mother’s Day call. ‘I have never sworn in my life, I don’t use expletives, I would never treat women like that,’ she insisted.
MP Claudia Webbe ‘threatens to send naked photos of woman to her family’ in recording played to court
In a recording played to Westminster Magistrates’ Court, MP Claudia Webbe answers the phone and immediately begins shouting at Michelle Merritt.
Webbe says: ‘Why are you still butting in and getting with Lester? Why, why?
‘He’s not your friend, he’s with me and I don’t want you to be in touch with me,
‘I don’t want you to be in touch with him.’
In the background Lester Thomas, Webbe’s partner, can be heard shouting: ‘Don’t listen to her, send me a message whenever you like.
‘Michelle, come off the phone and call the police.’
Webbe screams: ‘Lester why don’t you go and live with her? TAKE EVERYTHING AND GO AND LIVE WITH HER!’
Ms Merritt asks why Webbe keeps calling her but Webbe screams: ‘Can you stop. Can you GET OUT OF MY RELATIONSHIP, GET OUT OF MY RELATIONSHIP.
‘GET OUT OF MY RELATIONSHIP!
‘I’ve seen all of your posts, I’ve seen all of your naked pictures, I’ve seen all of your relationship with Lester.
‘GET OUT OF MY RELATIONSHIP!
‘Otherwise I will tell all of your family and I will show them all of your pictures.’
Ms Merritt then informs Webbe that she is recording the calls and will ‘leak it to the press’ before hanging up.
‘I spent my lifetime campaigning for the rights of women, for challenging this type of behaviour and this is not something that is in my character and not something I would ever do.’
Asked about the subsequent call from police, she claimed she had not been ‘warned off’ further contact.
She then told the court the recorded phone call had been taken out of context, having occurred while she was arguing with Mr Thomas about breaching lockdown with Miss Merritt.
‘My anger was directed towards Lester,’ she said. ‘The conversation between Lester and I became heated. I attempted to call Michelle twice on this day to understand why she had repeatedly breached lockdown with Lester.’
The MP also denied threatening to disclose intimate photographs of Miss Merritt. Webbe claimed: ‘During the call I was having two conversations at once and I repeatedly told Michelle to get out of my relationship and by this I meant that she should not be relying upon Lester for support as they were not in a relationship.
‘I did not threaten to disclose photos of her – this was a comment directed at Lester because he had been physically violent and I was trying to get him off me.
‘Eventually he smashed my phone… I was so angry with Lester, he was not wanting to listen to me, he did not want to respect my role as an MP, he did not want to understand how serious Covid was.’
Her voice breaking, Webbe continued: ‘He was constantly rebuking me, ridiculing me, goading me, as though this is not something that is as serious as people make out and that he can do what he wants.
‘I just wanted her to stop engaging with him for the sake of the pandemic… I was just so angry with Lester.’
Police were called to the couple’s London flat on the day having been alerted by a neighbour to an on-going disturbance.
But at an earlier hearing it was stated that Webbe ‘didn’t make an allegation of any abuse’, although officers did conduct a ‘risk assessment with the defendant and her partner’.
Giving evidence, Webbe apologised for ‘what that tape portrays’ and admitted it was not ‘her finest’ moment.
Something of an understatement – and one that her constituents may feel should draw the curtain on her short, and ignominious, parliamentary career.
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