Shamed MP Claudia Webbe today lost her appeal against a conviction for harassing her love rival who said she ‘feared for her life’ after the politician threatened to throw acid on her and leak her nude photos.
Webbe, 57, was handed a ten-week suspended jail sentence last year after being convicted of harassing executive assistant Michelle Merritt, 59, with abusive phone calls and accusing her of ‘slagging around with my boyfriend’.
Webbe was expelled from the Labour Party after being found guilty, but is still claiming £84,000 worth of taxpayers’ money a year to represent her Leicester East constituency as an independent.
Following her failed appeal she may now be kicked out of Parliament by her constituents. If a recall petition is opened and 10 per cent of Webbe’s constituents vote for her to be recalled this would trigger a by-election.
Prosecutors said the MP’s 18-month harassment campaign was driven by ‘obsession’ and ‘jealousy’ over her Chelsea FC scout boyfriend Lester Thomas’s relationship with Ms Merritt, an executive assistant.
The victim told how Webbe branded her a ‘slag’ who ‘should be acid’ and threatened to reveal naked photographs to her family in a string of phone calls.
Webbe, a former adviser to the National Police Chiefs’ Council on firearms, was found guilty of harassment by Chief Magistrate Paul Goldspring and handed a 10-week suspended jail sentence following a trial at Westminster Magistrates’ Court last year.
Today, following an appeal hearing at Southwark Crown Court, she was again found guilty by Judge Deborah Taylor and two magistrates.
Claudia Webbe was handed a ten-week suspended jail sentence last year after being convicted of harassing Michelle Merritt with abusive phone calls, accusing her of ‘slagging around with my boyfriend’. She is pictured today arriving at Southwark Crown Court
So will ‘callous’ MP now be kicked out of the Commons?
Webbe is currently sitting as an independent MP for Leicester East after having her Labour whip removed.
But voters in the Leicester East constituency could remove her as their MP under a rule introduced following the 2015 Parliamentary expenses scandal.
Under parliamentary rules, a recall can be opened for any MP that is –
- Convicted of an offence and received a custodial sentence (including a suspended sentence) or ordered to be detained, other than solely under mental health legislation;
- Barred from the House of Commons for 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days, or;
- Convicted of providing false or misleading information for allowance claims under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009.
A recall can opened once any appeals have been heard and dismissed. If a petition is opened and 10% of the electorate then vote for Webbe to be recalled, this will trigger a by-election.
Two MPs have been removed by recall petitions since their creation, both in 2019. Labour MP Fiona Onasanya was jailed for three months after being convicted of perverting the course of justice for lying over a speeding ticket.
Chris Davies, the Tory MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, was kicked out after he pleaded guilty at Westminster Magistrates court to making false expenses claims. He was ordered to do 50 hours unpaid work and fined £1,500.
Today, Helen Law, for Webbe, called Ms Merritt ‘a good actress’ who lied to make Webbe seem ‘unhinged’ to aggravate the case against her.
At the very beginning of her closing speech, Ms Law said Ms Merritt had ‘lied about issues at the heart of this case’.
‘There were five occasions before she gave evidence to this court when Michelle Merritt, as a minimum, had the opportunity to record in her account that she was having sex with Mr Thomas,’ she said.
Ms Law said that the confession was made after the police downloaded and disclosed the contents of Ms Merritt’s phone to Webbe’s defence team.
This meant that Ms Merritt ‘knew she would have to admit’ her sexual relationship with the MP’s then-boyfriend, the court heard.
‘Her accounts on every occasion prior to that were lies.’
Ms Merritt had told the court, both during the trial and the appeal, that she was a woman ‘in fear’ of Webbe’s behaviour.
Webbe’s barrister disputed this.
Reading from the victim impact statement Ms Merritt delivered at Webbe’s sentencing in November 2021, Ms Law said: ‘This whole incident has caused me to stop my relationship with Lester Thomas.
‘He was a close friend of mine and Claudia has caused me to stop my friendship.’
The court heard today that months before the sentencing, Ms Merritt went to the police station to sign the statement in which those assertions were made.
Ms Law said that before she headed off to the police station to do so,
Ms Merritt texted Mr Thomas: ‘Is that it? You really have been whipped?’
‘She is the one trying to reignite that relationship,’ Ms Law said. ‘She is not in fear. And within days they are where they were before, having sex, sex chats, meeting up.
‘The only reason it ends is not because Michelle Merritt is in fear but because of the escalation of the police investigation in the middle of July.’
Ms Law added that Ms Merritt’s lies were ‘intended to aggravate’ allegations against Webbe.
She urged the panel to be ‘careful’ in relying on anything Ms Merritt has said.
‘Ms Merritt is also a good actress when she wants to be. The fact that other people may have thought she appeared to be in fear does not take anything any further.’
Turning to the recorded phone call of April 25, 2020, Ms Law said her client was ‘broken’ at the time.
She reminded the court that Webbe has apologised for her tone and her anger during that conversation.
‘She explained that Mr Thomas was physically coming at her… and that she was very distressed.’
The MP’s neighbours are said to have phoned police that evening reporting screams from Webbe’s flat.
One neighbour told police they heard Webbe say: ‘Let go of me.’
The same resident told the operator: ‘I have never known her to do this before.’
Ms Law said: ‘This is an extreme day in Claudia Webbe’s life.’
Yesterday Webbe sat stony-faced in court as it emerged that Mr Thomas had exchanged sexual messages with Ms Merritt, given her a £120 sex toy and frequently sent her pornography.
But today, prosecutor Susannah Stevens said Ms Merritt’s fresh confession of engaging in sexual relations with Mr Thomas while he was with Webbe undermines the MP’s appeal.
Of Ms Merritt’s new evidence, Ms Stevens said: ‘All of that…is relevant solely as to credibility because actually it could be said that what was going on between Michelle Merritt and Lester Thomas is actually unhelpful to the appellant’s case.
‘Because Claudia Webbe’s suspicions as to all of that provide her not with a defence but with a motivation.’
Southwark Crown Court heard yesterday that the MP’s suspicions were warranted, after Ms Merritt admitted that she had been having sex with Chelsea FC scout Lester Thomas for years (who Webbe is pictured with outside court in November)
Webbe told the court yesterday that she had ‘suspicions’ about them but did not know they were engaging in sex.
‘At the time of the lockdown I may have started to begin to think that something was not right but apart from that I had no idea that they were anything more than friends,’ she said.
Ms Stevens said people are not always ‘completely forthcoming’ with information about a sexual relationship.
‘It doesn’t automatically follow that if you haven’t been forthcoming of sexual relations… that means that you have been untruthful and have lied about the acts of harassment.’
The court was reminded of the recorded phone conversation between Webbe and Ms Merritt in April 2020 in which the politician yelled nine times down the phone: ‘Get out of my relationship.’
In the call, played to the court on the first day of appeal, Webbe also said: ‘I have seen all of your posts, I have seen all of your naked pictures. I have seen all of your relationship with Lester.’
‘Get out of my relationship, otherwise I will tell your whole family and show them all of your pictures.’
Ms Stevens said this was a significant piece of ‘corroborative and supporting evidence’ which can make the panel ‘sure’ that Webbe harassed Ms Merritt on 25 April, 2020.
The barrister added that the call made clear Webbe’s ‘animus and ill feeling’ towards Ms Merritt.
Webbe earlier told the court that the threats to expose intimate images was directed at her then-boyfriend, Mr Thomas, who she was arguing with simultaneously.
Ms Stevens said the recording lends ‘particular support’ to the allegation that there was a similar incidence of harassment via a phone call made to Ms Merritt on Mothers’ Day 2019, 31 March.
It is alleged that, during this conversation, Webbe called Ms Merritt a ‘slag’, threatened to send naked images of her to her family and threatened to throw acid on her.
Ms Merritt reported the call to the police the same day.
Yesterday, Webbe denied ever making such a call or delivering such threats.
Webbe, a former adviser to the National Police Chiefs Council on firearms, said she split up with Mr Thomas in March this year after learning of messages he had exchanged with Ms Merritt. Pictured, the former couple leaving Westminster Magistrates Court on November 4, 2021
Ms Stevens said: ‘It is beyond a coincidence that the same words are said and the fact that Michelle Merritt made that call to the police at the time is strong supporting evidence so that you can be sure that there was harassment on at least two occasions.
‘The appellant’s case that it’s a completely false allegation, it is submitted, is undermined by that 999 call on the same day.’
Turning to Webbe’s evidence, Ms Stevens said: ‘Her answers did not ring true and were not credible.’
She added: ‘Did Claudia Webbe telephone Michelle Merritt when she knew that she shouldn’t?
‘Were there silent calls that caused Michelle Merritt to feel concerned and alarmed and distressed?
‘Did she make a threat on Mothers’ Day?
‘Did she repeat one aspect of that threat, namely the showing of naked images on April 25, 2020 to Michelle Merritt as opposed to Mr Thomas?
‘Our submission is that the extent of the other evidence which is either agreed or which in our submission has not been undermined through cross examination is such that you can be sure that there were at least two acts that amounted to harassment.’
Webbe entered the Commons in December 2019, winning the seat formerly held by Keith Vaz, the Labour veteran who retired from Parliament in the wake of a scandal.
She was a councillor in Islington between 2010 and 2018 and was a member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee.
Earlier in her career, she was a political adviser to the then-London mayor Ken Livingstone.
Webbe, of Islington, London, denied but was convicted of one count of harassment, between September 1, 2018 and April 26, 2020.
The appeal continues.