For days, the Labour leadership has been dreading a resignation. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell even warned Labour MPs not to use the row over anti-Semitism as a cover to form a new party.
Their worst fears have now been realised. Frank Field, sickened to the core by the anti-Semitism swirling around his leader, has finally snapped. The fact he is the first to go will add to the pressure on the hapless Jeremy Corbyn.
Hugely respected on both sides of the House of Commons, Field is renowned as one of Westminster’s most independent and fairest-minded MPs.
Concluding that Labour is now seen as ‘racist’, Field made the painful decision to resign the whip after 60 years as a party member.
Only last week Alan Johnson, the popular former Labour home secretary, warned a ‘split’ in the Labour Party was inevitable because of Corbyn’s failure to act.
Frank Field pictured in Westminster last night after resigning the Labour whip over the anti-Semitism crisis and blaming Jeremy Corbyn for allowing its rise within the party
Is the departure of such a high-profile MP as Frank Field, a minister in the first Blair government – who was brought in to think the unthinkable on welfare reform – the start of the process?
All eyes will now be on Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford South, who said last week the party was ‘a horrible place to be’ after footage emerged from 2013 of Corbyn mocking English Zionist Jews for, as he sees it, not understanding ‘English irony or history’. It was this recording which provoked the astonishing and rare public intervention from former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, who said the remarks were the most offensive by a senior politician since Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968.
Frank Field was dumbfounded by the response of Corbyn’s office, who mocked the Powell comparison as ‘absurd and offensive’. It was the final straw. For 48 hours, Field agonised before finally deciding he had no option but to go.
But it’s not just the race row which has driven this leading political figure to make this dramatic gesture. Though he has served as an MP with distinction for nearly 40 years, a tiny minority of Left-wing agitators (less than 10 per cent of constituency party members) passed a vote of no confidence in him last month for siding with the Government over Brexit.
Field’s decision to join three other rebel Labour MPs in that vote was based on his own long-standing Euroscepticism, and the fact that his constituency on the Wirral voted in favour of Leave.
Ever since Corbyn was elected leader in September 2015, Frank Field has been locked in a grim battle for survival with his local party.
Frank Field pictured in his office in 1973 when he was the director of the Child Poverty Action Group. He became the Labour MP for Birkenhead in 1979
Members of Momentum, the hard-Left group set up to bolster Corbyn’s leadership, recently seized control of the levers of his local party, hence the vote of no confidence. They targeted Field even though he is a man who has campaigned on behalf of the poor for decades and whose moderate, Christian values are respected by the party’s traditional voters.
On social media there has been a constant torrent of abuse directed at Field who, in the summer holiday, spent days on end in his constituency supervising food runs for children who are in receipt of free school meals during term time.
The agitators who targeted Field are part of the same hate mob that’s trying to deselect other moderate MPs, and taking over Labour councils across the country. This gang of agitators is riddled with bullies and anti-Semites whose behaviour is threatening the biggest split in the Labour Party since the breakaway SDP in the early Eighties.
When Field talks in his resignation letter of a ‘culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation’, he means the Momentum thugs who have made his life a misery.
But then it’s not the first time Frank Field has been under attack from an enemy within his own party. His bravery goes back to the Eighties when, just as now, he was challenged by the hard-Left in his constituency.
Back then, Trotskyite infiltrators under the banner of Militant tendency tried to remove Field as an MP. In the Eighties they were a fringe group, but now Momentum is far more powerful, having taken control of the ruling national executive committee of the party.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn (pictured last week) was elected leader in September 2015, Frank Field has been locked in a grim battle for survival with his local party
Over the years, Field has stood up to many powerful interest groups. It is he who is leading the campaign to strip the knighthood from retail tycoon Sir Philip Green after his shameful behaviour over BHS.
That fearlessness means that over the years, Field has survived three deselection attempts by militants and has vowed that Labour’s moderates will never give up without a fight.
Only the other day, I overheard him in the Commons, where he was hard at work even though Parliament is in summer recess, declaring: ‘Why should I leave the Labour Party? It’s been my entire adult life.’
It’s measure of how low Labour has fallen under the malign leadership of Jeremy Corbyn that a good and honest man like Frank Field can no longer square his conscience with remaining.
If the situation doesn’t change before the next election, Field, 76, will fight as an Independent Labour candidate. With a 25,500 majority and a huge personal following – having been the MP since 1979 – the chances are he might win the seat, thus denying Labour one of their safest seats.
Will other Labour MPs sickened by the extremism, the bullying, the anti-Semitism and intolerance, now do the right thing and follow suit?