Labour comes out for Woolas – but public wary

By Ian Dunt

Westminster is dominated by talk of Labour’s support for Phil Woolas, even as polls show public support for the court which found against him.

A parliamentary Labour party meeting last night allegedly saw a series of angry and personal attacks against deputy labour leader Harriet Harman, who instantly distanced the party from Mr Woolas following the court decision last Friday.

Labour MPs were briefing journalists all around Westminster that things had become extremely heated in the meeting.

Comment: Weep no tears for Woolas

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Harriet was attacked from every direction,” one anonymous former Cabinet minister told the BBC.

Some soures said Ms Harman had been branded “a disgrace” and told to consider her position.

But a YouGov poll for the Sun found overwhelming public support for the decision to strip him of his election win.

The poll found 71% of respondents thought the court was right to expel Woolas, with only seven per cent saying it had made the wrong decision.

But it appears that support for Mr Woolas within parliament is building.

Several MPs from all sides of the House spoke of their discomfort with the verdict of the special election court yesterday, after Speaker John Bercow confirmed that the by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth would be delayed until the end of legal proceedings.

Some Labour MPs are also understood to be raising money for his legal costs.

Mark Hunter, Liberal democrat MP for nearby Cheadle, was irritated by the groundswell of support.

“It is completely unacceptable that the Labour party appears to be trying to defend Phil Woolas,” he said.

“Any Labour politician who defends Phil Woolas should come to Oldham East and Saddleworth and explain to people why they were happy for him to lie to them about his opponent Elwyn Watkins in the most appalling and divisive way.”

Meanwhile, Mr Woolas insisted to his local paper, the Manchester Evening News, that Gordon Brown and Cherie Blair had called to offer messages of support.

“I’ve been overwhelmed,” he told the newspaper.

“There has been backing from political allies and opponents. They realise the damage this decision could do to democracy.

“Mr Brown has said he does not believe I am a dishonest man while Cherie has given her support.”

The former immigration minister insists the campaign material the court found to be misleading contained comment rather than statement of fact.

Yesterday he filed a judicial review of the court case, despite warnings from a judge that an appeal was the suitable legal avenue. Neither would do anything about the facts of the case, although they may have some impact on the sentence.

Mr Woolas enjoyed a tempestuous relationship with Mr Brown while he was prime minister.

The Oldham East MP was made immigration minister and tasked with reassuring voters with a tough approach to the issue.

But several moments of his Cabinet career saw Mr Woolas unilaterally decide policy, most notably when he said the government would not let the UK population rise above 70 million. That comment resulted in him being pulled from a planned appearance on Question Time.