“I’m not mad, I’m a member of parliament.”
An MP who threatened to throw acid at her partner’s female friend and send naked photos of her to her family has been found guilty of harassment.
Claudia Webbe, 56, also made threatening phone calls to Michelle Merritt because she claimed: “We were in a national crisis and lockdown had to be adhered to strictly”.
The MP was accused of threatening to send naked pictures of the 59-year-old to her family because she was jealous of Ms Merritt’s friendship with her partner Lester Thomas who Webbe remains in a relationship with.
The independent Leicester East MP, who was suspended by the Labour Party, is alleged to have made a string of short silent phone calls to Ms Merritt, called her a “slag” and threatened her with acid between 1 September 2018 and 26 April last year.
Webbe denied one count of harassment and said she called Ms Merritt as a “courtesy” because she was unhappy the 59-year-old had been breaching lockdown rules with Mr Thomas, Ms Webbe partner.
The prosecution said Ms Webbe, of Islington, north London, made a string of calls to 59-year-old Michelle Merritt between September 2018 and April last year.
Some of the phone calls had their number withheld but some did not as Webbe had dialled “121” before Ms Merritt’s number instead of “141”, which withholds the caller’s number.
The MP was cross-examined about a number of phone calls, including a seven-second call in March 2020 in which Ms Webbe says she told Ms Merritt: “Michelle can you please not break lockdown with Lester.”
Ms Webbe told the court: “She was committing a crime. I was pointing this out, I am the victim.”
She said as an MP she felt her “household should not be breaking lockdown”.
When asked why she did not report Ms Merritt and Mr Thomas to the police, Ms Webbe said she “gave up because they continued to meet up long after April”.
The court heard during one phone call, Mr Thomas could be heard asking the MP: “Are you mad?”
Prosecutor Susannah Stevens suggested the comment was made “because you had gone mad” but Webbe said: “I’m not mad, I’m a member of parliament.”
In an earlier hearing in September, a recorded call was played in court, Ms Webbe is heard repeatedly telling Ms Merritt to “get out of my relationship”, adding “I have seen all of your naked pictures. I will show them all of your pictures”.
Ms Webbe, from Islington, north London, denied that she ever threatened Ms Merritt and denied ever deliberately making silent phone calls from a withheld number.
She said she was aware Ms Merritt was friends with her partner but “didn’t have any concerns” about their relationship, adding: “I was not jealous.”
Talking about the accusation that she made a misogynistic insult against Ms Merritt and threatened her with acid during a phone call on Mother’s Day 2019, she said: “I don’t use expletives, I would never treat women like that.
“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.”
Ms Webbe said she had received a phone call from police following Ms Merritt’s complaint but said it was unclear, and that she had not been “warned off any further contact”.
She claimed the recorded phone call which was played in court was taken out of context, and was about an argument with Mr Thomas over breaching the Covid-19 lockdown with Ms Merritt.
“My anger on that particular day was directed towards Lester,” she said.
“It’s not my finest moment. I listened to the tape earlier. I’m embarrassed by it.”
Chief Magistrate Paul Goldspring said he believes some of the things Webbe said in court were “made up in the spare of the moment”.
“Her explanation was frankly incredible and I do not believe it,” he added.
He also asked for a pre-sentencing report before he determined her sentence because he said threatening to throw acid and send intimate pictures to someone’s family “crosses the custody” threshold. He said he is considering a custodial sentence.
Webbe said she was “deeply shocked” by the verdict, insisted she is innocent and the recording of the call during lockdown had “been taken out of context”.
She said she will appeal the verdict and will continue to represent her constituents in Leicester East.
Westminster Magistrates Court heard statements on Webbe’s character from former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who described the MP as a “person of good character who makes a positive contribution”.
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Webbe was “honest, responsible and an extremely caring person”.
Prosecutor Susannah Stevens said Webbe has been harassing Ms Merrit “for a long period of time”, and there had been no mention of COVID-19 in a recorded phone call during which Webbe told Ms Merritt to “get out of my relationship”.
Webbe was a political adviser to then-London mayor Ken Livingstone, worked as a councillor in Islington between 2010 and 2018, and was a member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee.
A sentencing date will be set in due course.
After the verdict, Webbe said: “I am innocent and will appeal this verdict. As I said in court and repeat now, I have never threatened violence nor have I ever harassed anyone.”
Her lawyer, Raj Chada, added: “The recording of the call Ms Webbe made has been taken out of context. We are sure that Ms Webbe will be vindicated at an appeal.”
Lisa Rose from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said Webbe’s “persistent nuisance behaviour caused considerable distress and alarm to her victim who became genuinely concerned for her safety”.
“No-one should have to endure this sort of harassment,” she added.
The Labour Party called on Webbe to step down after the verdict.
A spokesperson added: “The Labour Party strongly condemns Claudia Webbe’s actions and she should now resign.”
Webbe entered the Commons in December 2019, winning the seat formerly held by Keith Vaz, the married Labour veteran who retired after it was revealed he engaged in unprotected sexual activity with male prostitutes and said he would buy them cocaine.
If Ms Webbe does stand down that will trigger a by-election.
This also begs the question why was Claudia Webbe named and the alleged Tory rapist MP allowed anonymity?