Rishi Sunak has been branded “desperate and pathetic” after accusing Labour of being “on the same side of criminal gangs” smuggling immigrants into the UK.
Senior Labour MPs have rounded in on the prime minister over a tweet sent from his official account on Tuesday.
Mr Sunak shared a link to a Daily Mail story alleging lawyers have helped people claim asylum on the basis of evidence they knew to be false.
He said: “This is what we’re up against.
“The Labour Party, a subset of lawyers, criminal gangs – they’re all on the same side, propping up a system of exploitation that profits from getting people to the UK illegally.
“I have a plan to stop it.”
Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry accused Mr Sunak of demeaning the role of prime minister.
She said: “Usually, I try and maintain some sense of respect for the office of the prime minister, but it’s just impossible when the man doing the job is willing to demean it like this.
“What a desperate attempt to deflect from his own dismal failures. Utterly pathetic.”
Labour frontbencher Jim McMahon, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, wrote: “When all else is lost, the only place you have is the gutter.
“Poor yes. Desperate and pathetic from Sunak too.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the Commons Standards Committee, said: “In his desperation he has plumbed a new depth.
“My political opponents aren’t enemies, or enemies of the people or a ‘criminal gang’. He debases his office and forgets act (sic) as PM of the United Kingdom not seek to sow division.”
Tory figures were also critical of the comments with Tim Montgomerie, founder of the Conservative Home website, saying the remarks were “unbecoming from a prime minister”.
However, Mr Sunak’s tweet received support from some Conservative MPs.
Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Labour seem to want criminal gangs & deceptive lawyers to decide who comes to the UK – that’s why they tried to block every vote on stopping the boats.”
Labour has said it opposes the government’s Illegal Migration Bill – which seeks to prevent people who cross the Channel from claiming asylum – saying the legislation is not credible and will not act as a deterrent to small boat crossings.
Its main criticisms of the controversial legislation are that there is not enough capacity to detain asylum seekers, there is no returns agreement with the EU and the Rwanda deportation scheme has still failed to get off the ground.
The party has put forward its own plan to reduce small boat crossings if it wins the next election, which includes a crackdown on criminal smuggler gangs through a new cross-border police unit.
The tweet from Mr Sunak comes after a report in The Times said he was preparing to launch a more aggressive political campaign in an attempt to shift Labour’s lead in the polls, with divisive policies on crime, immigration and transgender rights.
Labour’s campaigning has also come under scrutiny as both parties ramp up attacks ahead of the next election.
Earlier this year, Sir Keir Starmer was accused of “gutter politics” and criticised by his own MPs over an advert accusing the prime minister of not wanting to see child sex abusers jailed.
At the time, the party defended the social media ad, saying it was “absolutely right to take the gloves off”.