Keith Vaz and Claudia Webbe ‘could stand as independents’ in Leicester East | Labour

Keith Vaz and Claudia Webbe, the former Labour MPs for Leicester East, could stand as independent candidates at the next general election and hand the seat to the Tories, the mayor of the city has claimed.

Leicester’s Labour mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, said he expected both to stand against an official Labour candidate, which could split the vote.

It is the first time that a senior party figure in the city has spoken out about fears that the seat could buck the national trend and fall to the Tories. The seat, with one of the biggest south Asian populations in the country, has been in Labour hands since 1987 and has been beset by scandals. Last year, the city attracted worldwide attention after clashes between Hindu and Muslim youths.

Labour suspended the Leicester East constituency Labour party, one of its most troubled seats, in August after claims of irregular activity.

Local activists claimed that Vaz was controlling the CLP’s activity and was hoping to force himself back on to the candidates list – a claim he denied.

On Monday the party announced two possible candidates – Rishi Madlani, a Camden councillor in Keir Starmer’s north London constituency, and Rajesh Agrawal, a deputy mayor of London.

Allies of Vaz, who represented the city for 32 years and is honorary president of the CLP, say he is being urged to run again.

The former Europe minister stepped down as a candidate in 2019 after being caught in a tabloid sting offering to acquire cocaine for sex workers.

Friends of Webbe, a former Jeremy Corbyn ally who now sits as an independent MP, said she “may stand again”. The former chair of the party’s disputes panel had the whip suspended after a court ruled she had harassed another woman. She is appealing against the party ruling.

Soulsby, who is serving his fourth term as Labour mayor and is a former MP for Leicester South, said his former political rival Vaz and the current MP Webbe were known to be plotting to stand again as independent MPs.

“We could well have two disgraced former Labour party candidates standing in the seat. People are saying that this is a real possibility and it might split the vote and let the Tories in. We as a party need to have a good and credible candidate in place as soon as possible,” he said.

“Keith has been a cancer in the political body of Leicester for decades and like many others in the Labour party in the city I am relieved that the party has realised and has had the courage to cut him out.

“It has been obvious for months that he is planning to put himself up as an independent candidate at the next general election. Although he lives in Stanmore, he has had himself installed as the so-called honorary president [of the CLP] and has continued to exercise absolute control over the party in that part of the city.”

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Labour is imposing its own candidates shortlist after concerns over the party’s performance in the city’s local elections in May, when it lost 22 council seats and the Conservatives gained 17, against the national trend.

The city’s three parliamentary seats were retained by Labour at the last election but in Leicester East the party’s majority fell from 22,428 in 2017 to 6,019 in 2019.

After months of rumours, Vaz told the Guardian earlier this year that he would not stand again, saying: “That ship has sailed.” When contacted on Monday, he reiterated that statement.

But associates of Vaz say his campaigning on the ground has snowballed in recent months, particularly in Hindu areas of the city.

Last year, he mailed households in Leicester with a campaign to save the local hospital and campaigned to save a local statue of Gandhi. In recent weeks he has appeared in a booklet offering best wishes for a five-day Hindu festival.

Webbe also declined to comment on Soulsby’s claim she would stand at a general election. She said: “I will not be distracted from the needs of Leicester East residents or from standing up for international justice by Labour’s internal games.”

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