The Telegraph 2024-05-29 16:00:38

LIVE General election 2024: Sadiq Khan says Diane Abbott ‘deserves respect’ amid growing backlash – watch live

Sadiq Khan has said that Diane Abbott should be treated with “the respect she deserves” amid growing backlash against Labour’s handling of her case. 

The MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington, who served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, was suspended from the party in April last year after she suggested that Jewish people did not experience racism “all their lives”. 

The MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington had the whip restored to her on Tuesday evening, with party sources telling The Telegraph that senior Labour figures had been trying to reach a “soft landing” for the MP whereby she can “go with grace”.

However, Ms Abbott said on Wednesday morning that she had been barred from standing as a Labour MP at the general election, something which Sir Keir Starmer later denied. 

The Mayor of London told the Evening Standard Ms Abbott was a “trailblazer” and recalled how seeing her in 1987 “made a huge impact on me in a positive sense of the word”.

Mr Khan added: “She’s someone who’s done a huge amount for Hackney, for London, for our country. So I think it’s really important that she’s given the respect she deserves.”

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Primary school teacher buried boyfriend like ‘building waste’, court told

A primary school teacher buried her murdered boyfriend as if he was “building waste”, a court has been told.

Fiona Beal had planned the killing of Nick Billingham in meticulous detail, including buying a utility knife in advance and then purchasing a spade and other burial equipment, prosecutors told an Old Bailey sentencing hearing.

Beal pleaded guilty mid-trial last month to the murder of Mr Billingham, whose partly mummified remains were discovered in their Northamptonshire garden, four and a half months after he was last seen.

She had earlier admitted manslaughter, claiming that she had experienced a “loss of control” when she killed the 42-year-old builder, adding that they had a “coercive” relationship.

On Wednesday, the Old Bailey heard that the 50-year-old had lured Mr Billingham into the bedroom with the promise of sex, tied him to the bed with cable ties and stabbed him in the neck. She then hid his body and told friends and family that he had left her for another woman.

Hugh Davies KC, for the prosecution, told the court: “This was murder and no less than murder. Whatever was or was not happening in the defendant’s relationship with Nick Billingham … nothing is now contended to justify in fact or law the defendant’s actions in killing him.

“Even if the defendant was as unhappy in the relationship as she has claimed, she had multiple options to end it without violence. She could have simply asked him to leave.”

But instead of relying on the support of her family and friends to find a way forward without her boyfriend, Beal “wanted the simplicity of a new life without him, the status of a victim of his supposedly running off and the house to herself”, said Mr Davies.

He told His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft KC, the Recorder of London, Beal had “planned to execute [Billingham] and did, planned and delivered a false narrative as to his having had another affair, run off and ceasing to communicate”.

Mr Davies said Beal had “planned for and took elaborate and sustained steps over a period of weeks to conceal her crime, including disposing of his body as if it was building waste in her garden, posed as him in communications with his friends, colleagues and family”.

He added: “This was a murder with multiple aggravating features.”

In a diary confession later found by police Beal, using the alter-ego Tulip 22, wrote that she had lured her partner of 17 years to his death with the promise of sex, stabbing him in the neck while they were in bed together on Nov 1, 2022.

He was wearing an eye mask and his hands were tied with cables as part of a sex game when she stabbed him to the right side of his neck, cutting the right jugular vein. He was still masked and tied when his partially decomposed body was discovered months later.

The killer’s journal revealed that Billingham’s last word to her as he lay dying was, “why?”.

Beal’s journals recounted the murder in grim detail. She wrote: “I had smoked all day. I had a bath, I left the water in. He had been pushing for sex. I encouraged the bath with the incentive of sex afterwards.

“While he was in the bath I kept the knife in my dressing gown pocket and then I had it in the drawer next to the bed.

“I brought a chisel, bin bag and cable ties too. I got him to wear an eye mask.”

She went on: “My last words to him when he asked why was that he was not going to do to [another female] what he had done to me.”

In cryptic notes later discovered by police, Beal wrote: “confession . . final farewell . . I’m not a total monster. I know what I did.”

Beal was arrested in March 2022 after being discovered at a holiday property near Kendal, in Cumbria, where she had tried to take her own life.

After police recovered her ‘Tulip 22’ journals giving a chilling account of how she had planned and then carried out a killing, they excavated the garden.

After four days of digging, officers found Billingham’s “partially wrapped and partially clothed” remains, buried in a makeshift grave of breeze blocks, old blankets and timber filled with compost and ten 22.5kg bags of Cotswold stone that Beal had bought from B&Q using Mr BIllingham’s card, and topped off with a plant pot for decorative effect.

“It demonstrated nothing but complete contempt,” said Mr Davies.

‘My body, my heart, my love’

During the hearing, Mr Davies read out a heartfelt letter Mr Billingham had written to Beal after he had an affair during their 17-year relationship.

In the letter, Mr Billingham accepted his faults and described Beal as “kind-hearted”, “generous” and “the most beautiful woman in the world”.

He wrote: “I promise to never again belittle you or make you feel rubbish again.

“My body, my heart, my love has been yours since the day I met you and will be until the day I die. I love you with all my heart.”

Beal, dressed in a black cardigan and pink floral dress, listened in the dock – occasionally taking notes – as the prosecution outlined the case against her. Mr Billingham’s mother, Yvonne Valentine, sat just a few feet away, in the now empty jury box, accompanied by her husband, Russell.

In a victim witness statement read to the court Mrs Valentine told of the moment, shortly after the murder, when Beal had invited her to the house to wrap Christmas presents and have a drink, while her son’s body lay just a few feet from where she was sitting.

Mrs Valentine said: “You sat in your front room with me, having a casual chat with me, having a Christmas drink with me and the whole time, you knew that you had killed my son and buried him only feet from where I was sat.

“I felt sad and embarrassed that my son had left you, but I shouldn’t have wasted my energy and concern on you, you had planned it all and at no point have you ever given me the same consideration or thought about the devastation you caused by killing my son.”

Addressing Beale, Mrs Valentine went on to say in her victim impact statement: “Nick was my first born, my beautiful little boy with a cheeky smile! Nick was so loved by his family, his friends and work colleagues. 

“My mother, Nick’s grandmother had to endure the news that you had killed her first born grandchild, just weeks before her own death and I witnessed the impact of this news on her, as I watched my mother’s health decline and die with a broken heart, all caused by you.

“You’re a coward. You’re evil. You killed him and then spun a cruel web of lies. You showed no regrets. You wrote ‘I’m not a total monster. I know what I did’. Now everyone knows exactly what you did and they will see you for the evil, total monster you are. 

“You killed my son in the most heinous way. You made sure he was defenceless and executed him and watched him bleed to death.”

Mrs Valentine added: “I want you to spend the rest of your life going over what you did to Nick, the pain and suffering that you put him through when you killed him and the total disregarding for him as a human being when you buried him like he was a piece of rubbish in his own back garden.

“I want you to remember that he will always be loved and that he will always be missed. You have faced judgement in court and will now have to face gods’ judgement for eternity.”

The court was told that expert witnesses at Beal’s trial had testified that her mental condition at the time of the murder “did not justify a finding of diminished responsibility” and that her substance abuse “may have played a greater than previously thought role in the killing”.

Beal will be sentenced when the hearing concludes after hearing mitigation on Thursday.

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Nikki Haley writes ‘finish them’ on IDF shells during Israel visit

Nikki Haley wrote “finish them!” on the side of a fresh Israeli artillery shell during a visit to Israel.

The failed presidential hopeful has been one of Israel’s fiercest supporters since war broke out with Hamas on Oct 7.

Despite other politicians from both sides denouncing the country’s aggressive offensive in Gaza, including democrat and fellow Israel supporter Chuck Schumer, Ms Haley has repeatedly rushed to Israel’s defence.

On Tuesday, she visited an artillery post on the country’s northern border and wrote on a shell: “Finish them! America [loves] Israel. Always. Nikki Haley.”

Photos of Ms Haley kneeling to sign the shell were shared on social media the same day by Danny Danon, a member of the Israeli parliament who had accompanied the South Carolina govenor on her visit.

‘You’re doing the right thing’

“I want Israelis to know you’re doing the right thing. Don’t let anybody make you feel wrong because Israel is not wrong in this,” Ms Haley said in a press conference on Monday.

Her comments are especially sensitive in light of Sunday’s airstrike in Gaza, which triggered a fire that killed 45 displaced Palestinians at a camp in Rafah.

Daniel Hagari , the Israeli Defence Forces spokesman, said it was still unclear what had caused the fire on Tuesday, but remained adamant it was not a direct result of the 17 kilogram munitions used, saying they were too small.

“We are looking into all possibilities including the option that weapons stored in a compound next to our target which we did not know of may have ignited as a result of the strike,” he said.

Israel said it was targeting two senior Hamas operatives in a compound when it launched the attack, but critics of Israel see the loss of civilian life as part of a pattern of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

On Wednesday, Israeli tanks carried out a second day of attacks in Rafah despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice that Israel stop its operations there because of the huge potential for loss of life.

Biden’s red line

Some 1.4 million people have taken shelter in the southern Gaza city, having been displaced in the seven months of war.

Samuel Johann, the emergency coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières’s in Gaza, said: “This Israeli attack on a populated camp in a so-called ‘safe zone’ in Rafah shows the complete disregard for the lives of civilians in Gaza. 

“Women and children were among the people that were brought to the stabilisation point, and once again, civilians are paying the price of this war.”

Joe Biden, US President, has repeatedly warned Israel not to attack Rafah, claiming it would cross a red line if it does and result in a pause to the supply of US weapons to Israel.

The US skirted around the issue on Sunday, with John Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesman, saying: “As a result of this strike on Sunday, I have no policy changes to speak to.”

Ms Haley was a hawkish UN envoy under Donald Trump and her term overlapped with Mr Danon.

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King and Queen watch play about family betrayal

The King and Queen have watched students perform a play about family betrayal at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

They visited Rada on Wednesday morning to celebrate its 120th anniversary after the King was announced as its patron earlier this month, taking over from his late mother.

They spoke to current students about one of the productions before watching an extract from House of Ife performed by third-year acting students in the Gielgud Theatre.

The play, by Beru Tessema, is described on the Rada website as a production about a family “forced to confront the traumas they have long tried to bury”. 

The production, which their majesties personally chose to watch out of three plays currently running, represents the “modern Rada”, according to David Harewood, the academy’s president.

The former Rada student said the King “really seemed to enjoy” the play, adding: “I saw him giggle at one point. They were given the choice of three plays and they chose that play, and I think he wants to see what modern Rada is about, so I think that gave him what he needed.

“Forty per cent of our student intake now are from black or mixed race backgrounds, and that’s again wonderful to see that we’re embracing that and they chose that play.

“He wants to see something modern, and again to see young black students at Rada being their authentic selves, when I was here it was all RP [received pronunciation] and that was the only way we could talk. So it’s nice to see modern students embracing that authenticity.

“In the way that he is reframing the monarchy, we’re doing the very same here with Rada – taking what was a very established legacy and trying to project that into the future, giving our modern students a taste of a much more modern industry.”

Misheck Albert Freeman, a third-year student performing in the House of Ife, said the King told him “that he enjoyed it very much and thought that we did well”.

Their Majesties were seen giggling at various points in the performance, particularly when Freeman started playing Amazing Grace on a keyboard that suddenly broke.

“Was that supposed to happen?” the King asked him later, to which the 28-year-old responded: “No, but we went along with it!” The King said: “It was fantastic – very amusing, I must say.”

The production is open to the public and will run until June 8.

As part of the visit, the King and Queen also toured the Scenic Art Studio, where they met technical theatre arts students and heard about the set design and build process. They spoke to Tiffany Yu, 21, who designed the model set for House of Ife.

Rada’s association with the royal family goes back more than 100 years, stemming from the royal charter it was granted in 1920. The late Queen was patron from 1952 until her death in 2022.

On their arrival, the King and Queen were greeted by Niamh Dowling, Rada’s principal, and Marcus Ryder, the chairman of the Rada council.

Before they left, a group of Rada students and graduates got the opportunity to meet them in the academy’s Burnt Cafe.

Among them was the actor Daniel Mays, who spoke with Camilla about his recent performance in Guys and Dolls, as she had watched the show in the West End with her grandchildren in January.

Camilla told him that it had been “fantastic”, adding: “I liked the idea that it was very intimate.” Later, Charles spoke to Mr Mays separately and told him the House of Ife extract they had seen was “excellent”.

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Circus studies face chop in Sunak’s crackdown on ‘Mickey Mouse’ university degrees

Contemporary circus and football studies are among the university courses that could be cut under a Tory crackdown on “Mickey Mouse” degrees, The Telegraph understands.

Rishi Sunak promised on Wednesday that the Conservatives would find cash for 100,000 high-skill apprenticeships by scrapping “rip-off” degrees, which the Prime Minister claimed “make students poorer”.

As many as one in eight undergraduate degrees could be closed down under the plans, which would introduce new legislation forcing the Office for Students (OfS) to close underperforming courses.

A senior Tory source told The Telegraph the move would protect students from “being mugged off” by £9,250-a-year degrees that saddle graduates with debt and do little to raise their career prospects.

They said it could include degrees such as contemporary circus and football studies, and even some science courses including sociology at specific universities if graduates are proven to earn too little.

Pressed to name a single degree that could be scrapped the Prime Minister, who was visiting Cornwall on Wednesday, told journalists: “What we do know is that there are university degrees that are letting young people down.”

Damian Hinds, the schools minister, told Radio 4’s Today programme that it was not for government ministers to decide which university courses could be scrapped. “We will not be instructing anybody to hit a particular number,” he said.

Student dropout rates

The OfS was recently granted powers to limit the number of students who can attend poor-performing courses.

The universities regulator uses three metrics to calculate this: student dropout rates between years one and two, percentages of course completion and graduate job prospects.

A fourth metric on graduate earnings will be added under the plans.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank has been tasked with assessing how best to integrate this, taking into account factors such as regional disparities between graduate earnings.

Several UK institutions offer degrees in circus arts including Bath Spa University and the National Centre for Circus Arts.

Analysis by the Telegraph earlier in 2024 found that performing arts degrees have the lowest graduate earnings on average across all UK universities. Graduates earn around £22,000 five years after completing their studies, according to Department for Education data, compared with national average earnings of around £35,000.

However, the university sector has warned that the clampdown could unfairly punish arts and humanities students.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of lobby group Universities UK, said on Wednesday she was “fed up of people talking down universities which are one of the things the UK can be genuinely proud of”.

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The Bulgarian town that boomed from UK’s biggest benefits fraud

The UK’s biggest ever benefit fraud scheme was uncovered after a lone Bulgarian police officer told British authorities his city was suddenly awash with cash and criminals were “living like barons”, The Telegraph can reveal.

Five Bulgarian nationals admitted stealing over £50 million from the taxpayer last month and on Tuesday appeared on day one of their three-day sentencing hearing at Wood Green Crown Court.

Galina Nikolova, 38, Stoyan Stoyanov, 27, Tsvetka Todorova, 52, Gyunesh Ali, 33, and Patritsia Paneva, 26, were supported by dozens of family and friends. In April they pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering.

The gang had thousands of “customers” and joked about the inability of the Department for Work and Pensions to catch them in messages shared on WhatsApp.

Their scheme unravelled when Inspector Vassil Panayotov, a detective based in Sliven, in the foothills of the Balkan mountains, launched an investigation into the sudden influx of cash in his city after noticing properties were being built and residents were wearing designer clothing.

He found that thousands of people, of whom many had never visited Britain, were receiving up to £2,500 a month in benefits from the UK.

He alerted the UK authorities via the British embassy in Sofia and in May 2021 a series of raids were conducted across north London.

The true scale of the fraud is likely to be hundreds of millions of pounds higher than estimated, according to Mr Panayotov.

He told The Telegraph: “I first became suspicious when I started to see the influx of money into Sliven. I wondered how these people had got such money.

“I received information from contacts that hundreds of people were receiving social benefits from the United Kingdom using the weaknesses in the British social system.

“When I received that information I started to check myself and began my own investigation. I eventually concluded that we were talking about maybe £200 million every year from the UK.

“The money coming into Sliven transformed the area. It did so in terms of property, but also people were buying designer clothes, and opening shops, casinos.

“I gave the information to the British police and they launched their own investigation into the gang.”

In court on Tuesday, Tom Little KC, prosecuting, said there were currently ongoing investigations in the UK into multiple other people suspected of involvement.

Detailing the scale of the fraud, he said: “The criminality involved, in total, many thousands of fraudulent claims for Universal Credit (UC) being made to the DWP and being paid out.

“Despite its scale, the fraudulent scheme of the three conspiracies was both simple to operate and highly effective.”

Universal Credit was introduced gradually from 2013 onwards in order to streamline previous benefits such as Child Tax credit, Housing Benefit and Income Support and is typically given to those on a low income or who are unemployed.

Mr Little told the court false claims were made for UC using real people who were “nearly always Bulgarian” and who “were complicit and also gained financially”.

He said: “The claims were supported by an array of forged documents and lies told to support the false claims.

“The forged documents included fictitious tenancy agreements, counterfeit payslips and forged letters from landlords, employers, schools and GPs.”

He said that most of the claimants “lived in Bulgaria and made claims in which they falsely claimed that they lived and worked here when they did not”.

He added: “Many travelled here for a short period of time to support the claim before returning to Bulgaria with the claim remaining ongoing. Some never even travelled here.”

The main architects of the fraud were, the court heard, Ali and Nikolova.

The gang would begin by finding “customers” in Bulgaria whose personal details they could use to fraudulently pretend they were living and working in the UK.

They would then produce an array of forged documents, including fictitious tenancy agreements, counterfeit payslips, and forged letters from landlords, employers and GPs.

Mr Little said that the gang also arranged “hundreds of cheap flights” for the fraudulent claimants so they could travel to the UK and attend interviews, or take pictures “proving” they were in the country and entitled to benefits if required.

Messages and images were exchanged on a WhatsApp group at the height of the fraud showing the gang making fun of the “naivety of the DWP”.

The DWP would sometimes ask for pictures of people outside properties with the front door open to prove they lived there.

The gang would take a picture of a fraudulent claimant outside an address and then Photoshop the image to make the door appear ajar.

They also developed a system involving the use of hundreds of burner phones that were passed to waiting customers using a bucket pulley system.

Over in Bulgaria, the city of Sliven, a once thriving industrial town famous for its textile industry, has recently been falling into decline.

Large so-called “ghettos” have been built on the outskirts and many of the city’s former factories have fallen into disrepair.

In recent years, the city has also become notorious as a source of young girls who are then trafficked into the sex industry.

Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph from the rundown offices of the organised crime division in Sliven before the sentencing, 47-year-old Mr Panayotov said he believed the gang had been making up to £200 million a year.

Once the benefits were approved, Mr Panaytov claimed the “customers” had to pay a one-off commission of between £500 and £800, after which they would receive on average between £2,000 and £2,500 a month.

He said: “Our investigation found that a few thousand people were customers of this scheme and it is likely that many are still receiving money through similar schemes.

“Nikolova had at least 5,000 to 6,000 customers and Ali was operating a similar scheme on a similar level.”

The Telegraph understands that the gang would allow the customers to receive benefits for two months, at which point they would start redirecting the money into their own accounts.

From that point on, they would take all the money for themselves and “commissioners” who helped find suitable candidates in Sliven.

Insp Panayotov said the small Bulgarian city had been “transformed” by the cash and that many of the customers had been “living like barons”.

Video and pictures shared with The Telegraph show people throwing wads of cash in the air. In another, they are seen paying a wedding singer €20,000 for one song.

While the Bulgarian authorities believe that the cash was laundered money, there is no evidence to suggest that the people in the video were aware of any crime being committed.

While showing The Telegraph the footage, Mr  Panayotov said: “That is your money. That is British money.”

The officer said that the majority of the customers, and commissioners, were from the Roma minority community.

When The Telegraph visited the Roma areas of the city, many of the buildings appeared to be being developed into large “mansions”.

Mr Panayotov continued: “There are currently 30 casinos in Sliven. These casinos were mostly built by criminals who have a lot of money.

“The fraudsters are earning easy money and they spend their money easily, without any plans. They are living like barons.”

The Telegraph also visited the city of Plovdiv, around an hour outside Sofia, where Ali part owns a restaurant, and a business.

Ali fled Britain to Bulgaria but he was extradited back to the UK on Feb 25 last year to face justice.

In court, it emerged that Todorova and Nikolova had also tried, unsuccessfully, to flee the UK after their initial arrest in May 2021.

A man at the Dreams cafe in Plovdiv, where Ali was arrested, said that the money the gang had made “was crazy”.

He told The Telegraph he “would love to visit the UK”, adding: “Everyone wants to”.

In the UK, all of the five defendants, apart from Todorova, lived in and around the Wood Green area of north London.

After being tipped off by Mr Panayotov, the Department for Work and Pensions conducted its own investigation before launching a series of raids.

At Stoyanov and Nikolova’s flat, detectives found £750,000 in cash as well as a large amount of designer clothing, jewellery and watches.

Among them were two Emporio Armani watches, two Versace watches, Gucci shoes and a number of Chanel trainers.

At Ali’s home address more than £40,000 in cash was found, as well as a number of photographs of banknotes, a Tiffany ring and a video of him with a large amount of money.

Mr Panayotov said he could not understand how the scheme had gone on for so long without authorities in the UK noticing.

Inside story
How Bulgarian gang used ‘burners and magic tricks’ in £50m fraud

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“At the beginning the British officers in the embassy said that was not possible,” he said. “Even our director was surprised at the scale of it.”

Following the arrests, Mr Panayotov said he was invited to celebrate at the late Queen’s Birthday party at the British embassy in Sofia.

He added: “A lot of people in Sliven hate me now”.

The DWP said its investigators worked to track and catch the fraudsters, gathering extensive evidence of false tenancy agreements and shell companies created to show false employment claims, including counterfeit payslips and GP notes. The group also created many false identity documents.

It described the case as “complex” with large amounts of intelligence needing to be worked through and police resources needing to be secured prior to arrest.

It said it stopped payments wherever possible once sufficient evidence was gathered.

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Tory campaigner caught removing Labour leaflet from letterbox on doorbell camera

A Conservative campaigner has been caught on a Ring doorbell camera removing a Labour Party pamphlet from a letterbox.

The canvasser arrived at the home of Anthony Buffin in Gloucester to deliver leaflets ahead of the upcoming general election.

After finding a Labour campaigner had left a pamphlet in the letterbox just minutes before, the Tory campaigner removed the flyer and replaced it with his own. 

Mr Buffin’s suspicion was aroused after hearing rustling and noticing the Conservative canvasser at his door. It was then that he checked his Ring doorbell footage and discovered the leaflet swap. 

Commenting on the incident, the Gloucester resident said: “A Labour campaigner delivered a leaflet to my home, presenting their party’s policies and vision.

“Mere minutes later, a Conservative campaigner arrived, delivering their own flyer but shockingly removing the Labour leaflet from my letterbox.”

He continued: “I knew it was a Conservative candidate, because I’d seen them outside. The leaflet was just gone and replaced with his, so I had a look at the CCTV.

“He must have known that was hers, because he pulled it out very discreetly by screwing it up.”

Mr Buffin posted footage of the incident on a local community Facebook page, remarking that it had left him with “significant concern about the integrity and trustworthiness of our political representatives”.

Commenting on the response to the video, he said: “A lot of people were shocked – I didn’t post it on a Labour or a Tory page, I just put it on our local community page.

‘Behaviour paints a very poor picture’

“Some people said it was petty, which I thought it was. It is funny and petty at the same time that someone would do something like that. I don’t know what he would have gained from that.

“This behaviour will likely be brushed under the carpet and a simple apology made – but this behaviour paints a very poor picture.”

Richard Graham, the Conservative MP for Gloucester, said the volunteer involved has apologised.

He added: “Everyone in the wider team was reminded of our ground rules of respect for constituents and opposition parties alike.

“We win by winning the argument about who is the best MP for Gloucester, not by removing and recycling other would-be MPs’ claims.”

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