Owen Smith has called Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to sack him from the shadow frontbench a mistake, and defended his choice to break with Labour party policy by calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
Smith was sacked as the shadow Northern Ireland secretary on Friday evening after writing an article in the Guardian on the issue. He said his decision to openly support a second Brexit vote was based on principle, and that the Labour party was in danger of “sleepwalking” towards adopting a Brexit position that would damage the British economy.
It comes as Corbyn was entangled in another antisemitism row after the Labour leader said he had been wrong to support a graffiti artist in 2012 whose work in London’s East End contained apparently Jewish bankers playing a game of Monopoly, with their tabletop resting on the bowed naked backs of workers.
Smith told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday that it was clear Corbyn wanted to adopt a more Eurosceptic position on the Brexit process than he did, and said Labour needed to “show leadership on the issue”.
“It’s the biggest economic crisis that our country will have faced for many, many generations, and I think there is a danger that we sleepwalk towards effectively supporting a soft Brexit outcome that we know is going to be damaging to our economy,” he said.
“It’s the first instance I can think of in living memory when a government is pursuing a policy that they know is going to make our economy smaller and reduce people’s livelihoods and life chances, and I cannot understand why we in Labour would support that.”
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, backed the decision to sack Smith, and said the MP for Pontypridd could not sit on the Labour frontbench and advance a position that was not party policy.
Smith said in response: “It’s interesting to have Diane Abbott defending the decision. She said something very similar just a couple of months ago and she hasn’t been sacked.
“For Jeremy Corbyn in particular, who’s always understood the value of people standing by their principles. It’s the position that he’s often adopted, and it’s certainly a value in him that others have extolled and, in truth, I think that’s all I’ve done. I’ve stood by my principles on what I think is the most important economic and security issue facing our country for generations. Labour needs to shift its position and that’s what I was trying to achieve.”
Smith’s sacking is likely to inflame tensions in the party over Brexit. On Friday, the former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain said Smith had been the victim of a “terrible Stalinist purge”.
Smith refused to be drawn on Corbyn’s latest antisemitism row in the Today interview.
In 2012, Corbyn had offered his support to the US street artist Mear One, whose mural had been scrubbed off a wall after a number of complaints over its antisemitic imagery.
In response to a Mear One Facebook post about the mural after the artist learned it was going to be removed, Corbyn responded: “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.”