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General election latest: Diane Abbott releases statement after Keir Starmer says she’s ‘free’ to stand as Labour candidate

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Sir Keir Starmer’s team knew they would hit a wobble at some point in this campaign – and Diane Abbott turned out to be it. 

After 72 hours of trying to stonewall questions about her future in the Labour Party, the leadership finally crumbled and Sir Keir preformed the U-turn: Ms Abbott can stand for Labour in her constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington that she’s represented for 37 years.

The decision is an attempt to draw a line under the whole sorry affair, which I reckon the top team thought would blow over and was worth riding out as Sir Keir seeks a post-election party with fewer unbiddables and more loyalists. 

One figure told me that focus groups suggested the Abbott issue didn’t have cut through with voters; and was a Westminster bubble story.

It turned out that view was wrong: Abbott as the first ever black woman MP and represents far more than just her seat. 

She does have cut through after all, and support within the party. 

As Sir Keir sought to hold the line that Ms Abbott’s re-selection was a matter for the NEC, Jess Phillips, the Labour candidate for Birmingham Yardley, told our Electoral Dysfunction podcast that Abbott should be allowed to stand and that this was “not a fight worth having”. 

Then yesterday Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, weighed in – telling me on the Sky News Daily podcast that she believed Ms Abbott should be allowed to stand if she wanted to. 

The backlash was building, not just from the left of the party, but from moderates too – uncomfortable at the manner in which Sir Keir’s team seemed to be throwing around their weight: “Why can’t they just be gracious in victory?”

Meanwhile, despite the leadership team’s early focus groups, the saga around Abbott was gaining momentum as it dominated news bulletins and provoked vocal criticism not just within the party but from without.

A group black British actors, authors and broadcasters wrote in the Guardian to urge Labour to “rectify and reverse” the “disrespectful” treatment of Ms Abbott or risk losing the party’s most loyal supporters. 

Finally, three days into the wobble that risked lurching into something even more destabilising, Sir Keir has acted to try to steady the campaign and get back on track. 

But this was an unforced error that has distracted from what had been a slick campaign and opened Sir Keir up for attack.

The Conservatives will no doubt accuse him of being a ditherer and showing weak leadership.

The row will have knocked morale in the party, with some unhappy about the heavy-handed way in which the leader’s office has treated colleagues. 

And voters might have perceived a high-handedness in Sir Keir’s treatment of Diane Abbott that jars with his message of “humbly” asking for people’s votes. 

Sir Keir says he’s ruthless for a Labour government.

The lesson from this shows he needs to be more ruthless in his decision-making during this election campaign.

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