Fuelling tensions just days ahead of Scottish Labour’s annual conference, Josh Simons apologised for his “poorly judged comment made in jest” – which was denounced as “stupid” and “cringe” by Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
Speaking to LBC on Monday, Mr Simons – whose group Labour Together has close links to Sir Keir Starmer’s top team – said his main concern with Rishi Sunak’s ailing policy of sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda “is not actually the human rights implications of it”.
“My main concern is this is a complete waste of money and it won’t work, it won’t stop the boats,” said Mr Simons, who harbours hopes of becoming a Labour MP, according to a source.
“That’s the thing Rishi Sunak said: ‘judge me by stopping the boats’. He’s failed and he keeps failing, and meanwhile he is spending £8m a day, so far £400m.
“My problem with Rwanda is it won’t work, so the question is what are you going to do instead? I think while the Conservatives say they are being tough on the borders and beefing up policing and so on, I’ve seen no real evidence that’s in fact what they are doing with the commitment and clarity they need to.
“Why don’t you send the smuggler gangs and put them on the barge that has been set aside for the asylum seekers, and then ship the barge up to the north of Scotland for all I – you know, who cares?”
The comments have provoked outrage among Scottish politicians, with Angus Robertson among top SNP figures seizing on the remarks as “a timely reminder” that “Labour always took Scotland for granted”.
They were also condemned at the top of the Scottish Labour Party. Speaking to the Daily Record, Mr Sarwar said: “Every party has elements on the fringes that give them moments of cringe.”
The party leader added: “He doesn’t represent the Labour Party and it’s actually quite a serious issue he trivialised. I think people that are making stupid, flippant comments like that are best ignored.”
And Monica Lennon, a senior Labour MSP, said:” There should be no place in the Labour Party for these disgraceful comments. Not caring about the human rights of people seeking asylum and disrespecting the people of Scotland all in one breath is quite something.”
Formed in 2015 by Labour frontbenchers such as Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, and Lisa Nandy, Labour Together claims to have “united the party behind Keir Starmer’s leadership”, while developing “bold new ideas” for the next Labour government.
Mr Simons became the group’s director in 2022, having also worked as a Harvard research fellow, a visiting research scientist in AI at Facebook, and a policy adviser to the Labour Party.
He previously told Politico he “was proud to take over an organisation that played such a vital role in ridding our party of antisemitism, making Labour electable again, and uniting the party around Keir Starmer”, and claimed Labour Together would “build networks that will help Labour win and deliver its agenda”.
Responding to the backlash over his remarks to LBC, he wrote on X/Twitter on Tuesday: “Following my comments on LBC last night, I apologise for any negative insinuation about Scotland.
“I’m half Scottish, I love the country and it is where much of my family comes from. It was a poorly judged comment made in jest and doesn’t reflect my views, or the views of the Labour Party.
“I was seeking to draw attention to the immorality of housing asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution on a barge while smuggler gangs get off free under the Conservatives.”
His comments come after controversial Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson suggested on GB News that asylum-seekers who arrive on small boats should be sent to Orkney instead of Rwanda, which the prime minister is seeking to do despite it being ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.