Senior Labour figures have said a Times story quoting civil servants who warn Jeremy Corbyn is too weak to run the country is “fake news”, but the newspaper has said it stands by its reporting.
The Times reported on Saturday that anonymous senior civil servants felt the Labour leader was not “physically or mentally” prepared for the top job.
The newspaper also wrote that the 70-year-old was described as being “too frail” at an event attended by civil servants.
Corbyn said in a response to article that there needed to be an investigation into “which senior civil servants are spreading fictitious information to the press and in the process compromising the integrity of the Civil Service”.
The Labour-supporting general secretary of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey, lashed out at the story on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, decrying it as “fake news” and saying Corbyn was “fit as a fiddle”.
He said: “I think Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thompson, who wrote that piece, ought to be ashamed of themselves. No wonder British journalism is held in such low esteem throughout Europe.
“It was a disgraceful thing. It was fake news. It was lies. It was distortion. Jeremy Corbyn is as fit as a fiddle. He’s one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever met.
“People 20 years younger than him can’t keep up with him. There’s nothing wrong with Jeremy.”
When Andrew Marr said they were “decent journalists trying to do their job”, McCluskey said: “Are they? Well they let us down yesterday.”
The independent MP Ian Austin, an outspoken critic of Corbyn who left the Labour Party earlier this year, told The Times that it was “ludicrous” of McCluskey to attack the media and described him as a “pound-shop Donald Trump”.
After the trade union leader’s BBC appearance, Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell tweeted: “Len McCluskey nails it on Marr, condemning the gutter press for latest onslaught of fake news, lies and smears against Jeremy Corbyn.
“When the Boris Johnson campaign is in trouble, needs a smokescreen and Labour has chance of winning election the Tory press lie machine gets to work.”
A Times spokesperson told Press Gazette: “It is hardly surprising that Len McCluskey doesn’t like this story because it is a deeply and meticulously reported piece on concerns about the Labour leadership – we stand by the story and by the award-winning journalists who wrote it.”
Writing to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett said the allegations about Corbyn’s health were “manifestly untrue”.
He told the UK’s top civil servant: “Discussion of these matters, based on false assumptions, should not be taking place.
“Worse, it is without precedent in my experience that any high-level discussion about senior politicians, let alone the leader of the Opposition, should be shared with a newspaper.
“I must now formally say to you that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this has been a totally unwarranted and indeed unconstitutional political intervention with disturbing implications for our democratic system.
“There clearly needs to be an investigation into what appears to have been a breach of civil service neutrality, independent of the Cabinet Office, in order to avoid any real or apparent conflicts of interest.”
Press regulator IPSO told Press Gazette that it has received no complaints about The Times article on Saturday.
Sedwill is expected to write to the Labour Party leader about the quotes attributed to senior civil servants later today.
Picture: Brian Lawless/Pool via Reuters