(Bloomberg) -- The Labour Party withdrew support from its candidate to fill a vacant Parliamentary seat in northern England, caving to pressure to cut ties with Azhar Ali over antisemitic remarks he was reported to have made last year. 

The UK’s main opposition party pulled its backing from Ali in the Feb. 29 Rochdale special election after he was recorded at a local party meeting suggesting Israel deliberately allowed the Oct. 7 attacks to happen, and blaming Jewish people in the media for criticism of pro-Palestine lawmakers. 

Labour’s decision to drop Ali effectively means it will not field a candidate at the Rochdale by-election, as electoral rules state it is too late for the party to replace him on ballot papers. Ali has been suspended from the Labour Party pending an investigation, meaning if he were to win the vote he would sit as an independent in Parliament, a person familiar with the matter said. It ultimately costs Labour a seat in the House of Commons.

The revelations mark the ugly return of antisemitism to the forefront of Labour politics, and threaten to undo efforts by its leader Keir Starmer to prove the party has fixed its relations with the Jewish community in Britain in the wake of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure, which was marred by a series of antisemitic comments by Labour lawmakers and members.

Starmer’s handling of the fresh scandal drew heavy criticism after he first backed the candidate, before reversing course and removing support. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told a question and answer session hosted by GB News on Monday night that Starmer’s shifting stance on Ali was “not principled at all.” 

“Keir Starmer has been running around for the last year trying to tell everybody the Labour Party’s changed,” Sunak said. “Well, look at what happened in Rochdale.”

Labour at the weekend stood by Ali after the Mail on Sunday first obtained a recording that it said showed Ali repeated a conspiracy theory that Israel “allowed” Hamas to launch its attack on Israel last October, as a pretext for it to invade Gaza. Despite the furor caused by that remark, Labour spokespeople defended Ali throughout Monday, with Nick Thomas-Symonds, a shadow minister without portfolio, appearing on broadcast to say Labour would continue to campaign for him as he had apologized unreservedly.

That line held for only a few hours, however, after the Daily Mail presented Labour with other comments Ali had made in its recording of a local party event in Lancashire. 

Ali reportedly said that “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” were responsible for the suspension of a left-wing lawmaker, Andy McDonald, last year. McDonald had used the controversial phrase “between the river and the sea,” something many Jewish people consider tantamount to calling for the expulsion of Jews from Israel. Ali said that McDonald “shouldn’t have been suspended.”

The decision to drop Ali could see voters in Rochdale look at candidates from minor parties standing in the district. George Galloway, a left-wing former Labour Member of Parliament, is standing for his Workers Party of Britain on a pro-Palestine ticket. He has a track record of making inflammatory statements about Israel, and was sacked from a job at the TalkRadio broadcaster in 2019 for comments about Tottenham Hotspur football club, which has a strong following in London’s Jewish community. 

Simon Danczuk, another former Labour lawmaker, is running for the right-wing Reform Party co-founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage. The by-election was triggered by the death of veteran Labour MP Tony Lloyd.

The political fallout poses a major challenge to Labour and Starmer. Despite leading by about 20 points in national opinion polls, the latest row cuts across a range of hot-button issues that threaten to undercut support for the party. Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response in Gaza have exacerbated tensions within Labour, which traditionally has strong support among British Muslims. Starmer for weeks resisted demands to call for a cease-fire, causing anger especially on the left wing of his party, as he tried to show how much Labour has changed and as he positioned it as a government-in-waiting.

It also comes at a difficult time for Starmer, who was already facing searching questions about the quality of decision-making among his leadership team following the decision to jettison Labour’s flagship economic policy after weeks of speculation. While the two rows are separate, they share a common factor: a question-mark over Starmer’s ability to show decisive political judgment.

Labour Under Pressure to Drop Candidate Over Antisemitic Remarks

“We understand that these are highly unusual circumstances but it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values,” Labour said in its statement. “Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognizable from the party of 2019.”

(Updates with reports on Ali’s comments from the Daily Mail)

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