Sir Keir Starmer's response to the blockading of national newspapers' printing plants by environmental protestors was "sadly and shamefully slow", Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has said.
Mr Dowden, whose role in Government is to champion the press, said the delay in responding allowed left-wing Labour MPs to express support for the activists despite widespread criticism over the implications for the freedom of the press.
The Labour leader put out a statement on Sunday morning condemning the actions, 36 hours after nearly 200 Extinction Rebellion activists used vehicles and bamboo structures to block roads outside major printing works in Hertfordshire and Liverpool.
The presses print The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, along with The Sun and The Times. Deliveries to readers on Saturday morning were severely affected as a result.
In his brief word statement just after 11.30am, which was not posted on his Twitter account, Sir Keir said: "The free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we must do all we can to protect it.
"Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change."
It's been reported Extinction Rebellion may be reclassified as an organised crime group after blocking newspaper presses.— Sophy Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) September 6, 2020
"That would be ridiculous" says @HackneyAbbott and she says @ExtinctionR are protesters "in the tradition of the suffragettes".#Ridge pic.twitter.com/KUMIZS3I50
Labour sources said Sir Keir did not comment on Saturday because he was on a visit to north Wales and was happy to let his shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, lead the party’s response.
Sir Keir's statement was almost identical to Ms Stevens'.
However, hours before Sir Keir issued his statement, former Labour home secretary Diane Abbott compared the activists’ action to that of the Suffragettes and said it would be “ridiculous” to legislate against them.
She told Sky News: “They're not criminals, they're protesters and activists in the tradition of the Suffragettes and the hunger marches of the 1930s.”
That came 24 hours after fellow Labour MP Dawn Butler described Friday night's blockade, which affected the distribution of several national newspapers, as “excellent work” in a since-deleted message on Twitter.
In his Telegraph article, Mr Dowden wrote: "As ever for the modern Left, the facts take second place to virtue signalling and platform denying.
"I would have hoped for better from Sir Keir Starmer, but sadly and shamefully he was slow to condemn the protesters' actions, whilst Labour MPs offered their support for the protestors."
Other Conservatives were heavily critical of Sir Keir. Amanda Milling, the Tory party's co-chairman who attends Cabinet, added: "A free press is a vital part of our democracy.
"Sir Keir's 36-hour silence on condemning this attack on our free press has been deafening. It shows him up for the opportunist he is, only caring about his own interest, not the national interest.
“He now needs to stand up to his own party and say clearly: this attack on jobs and freedom is not acceptable.”
Peterborough MP Paul Bristow added: “Anyone with any sense is appalled by what Extinction Rebellion have done. A free press is essential for democracy.
“After 36 hours, Sir Keir Starmer finally said something but still ignores his own MPs like Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler, who were applauding XR.”
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said that the protesters were now displaying “eco-facism” by “silencing news outlets and those they don’t agree with”.
He said: “There is no place for it in society. This should be an opportunity for Keir to show that his Labour Party always takes the line of free speech.
“He should take control and make clear that the words of his backbenchers do not stand for the Labour Party."