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MP Claudia Webbe loses appeal against harassment conviction

MP Claudia Webbe has lost her appeal against her conviction for harassing a love rival (Aaron Chown/PA)
MP Claudia Webbe has lost her appeal against her conviction for harassing a love rival (Aaron Chown/PA)

Former Labour MP Claudia Webbe has lost her appeal against her conviction for harassing a love rival.

Webbe, who represents her Leicester East constituency as an independent after being expelled from the party, targeted Michelle Merritt, 59, between September 2018 and April 2020.

Prosecutors said the 18-month harassment campaign was driven by “obsession” and “jealousy” over her boyfriend Lester Thomas’s relationship with executive assistant Ms Merritt.

The victim said Webbe had 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.

Claudia Webbe court case
MP Claudia Webbe arrives at Southwark Crown Court (Aaron Chown/PA)

On Thursday, following a hearing at Southwark Crown Court, her appeal was dismissed by Judge Deborah Taylor and two magistrates.

The judge said the court found Webbe had not “made a threat to throw acid over” Ms Merritt but that a string of silent phone calls and threats to reveal naked pictures of her had been “a course of conduct which amounted to harassment”.

She will sentence Webbe, who entered the Commons in December 2019, winning the seat formerly held by Labour veteran Keith Vaz, who retired from Parliament in the wake of a scandal, later on Thursday.

Following her conviction, Labour said the party would push for a recall petition to force a by-election if Webbe did not quit the Commons following the appeal.

The MP had arrived at her magistrates’ court trial holding hands with Mr Thomas, who sat in the public gallery to hear his partner claim she was the victim of “domestic abuse and coercive control”.

Mr Thomas, a consultant at Crossrail, football coach and scout for Chelsea FC, had been expected to give evidence for the first time in Webbe’s appeal.

But the politician said she had split up with him in March this year, when new sexual messages between Mr Thomas and Ms Webbe were discovered.

The court heard that he bought Ms Merritt a £120 sex toy, frequently sent her pornography and would regularly meet her to “play”.

Giving evidence from behind a screen, Ms Merritt admitted having sex with Mr Thomas – who she described as a “narcissist who likes attention” – between March 2017 and July 2020.

Webbe said: “I had no idea about the relationship between Michelle Merritt and Lester Thomas, that this relationship had been going on throughout the entire time of my relationship with Lester.

“Therefore, I was shocked and could not deal with that.”

Claudia Webbe court case
MP Claudia Webbe said she had been ‘shocked’ to learn about the relationship between her then boyfriend, Lester Thomas, and Michelle Merritt (Aaron Chown/PA)

The MP’s barrister, Helen Law, suggested Ms Merritt had “lied” or “misled” the magistrates’ court when she said she and Mr Thomas were just “good friends”.

But prosecutor Susannah Stevens said: “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.”

The court heard that the harassment began with silent phone calls in September 2018, and then “escalated” on March 31, Mother’s Day, the following year when Webbe questioned why Ms Merritt was in touch with her boyfriend.

Ms Merritt said Webbe told her: “Friends don’t send friends pictures of their tits and pussy. You’re a slag and should be acid.”

The court heard that Ms Merritt called police to report “I have been threatened by a public figure with acid”, but received 17 more phone calls lasting 14 seconds or less from Webbe after the MP was warned to stop contacting her.

In one phone call made and recorded by Ms Merritt on April 25 2020, Webbe is heard telling her rival to “get out of my relationship” some nine times.

“I have seen all of your naked pictures,” she says. “Get out of my relationship otherwise I will tell your whole family and show them all of your pictures.”