Tory MPs divided over social media attack on Labour using pic of BBC presenter

<span>Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA</span>
Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

Conservative divisions over immigration have deepened further after the party posted an attack on Labour using an image of a BBC presenter with her middle finger raised, prompting jubilation from some Tory MPs and anger from others.

The official Conservative account on X, formerly Twitter, posted an image on Thursday night of the presenter getting caught on camera jokingly raising her middle finger, accompanied by the caption: “Labour when you ask for their plans to tackle illegal migration.”

The tweet appeared designed to refocus attention on the opposition party after a difficult 24 hours that saw the prime minister publish his new Rwanda bill, only for his immigration minister to resign over it almost immediately.

Some MPs gleefully retweeted the image, including Jonathan Gullis, the MP for Stoke-on-Trenth North, who commented: “I approve this message.”

Others, however, quickly condemned the attack advert, including Alicia Kearns, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee. Kearns said: “It is the duty of MPs to improve the quality of debate, not behave like foul-mouthed rabble rousers, competing to lower the tone.

“Colleagues endorsing this sort of ‘politics’ must take full responsibility for the green light they’re giving to abusive behaviour and discourse.”

Tobias Ellwood, another backbench MP, tweeted: “Please delete this post.”

One MP who did not want to be named said: “I’m lost for words. This is gutter politics.” Another added: “Colleagues are furious.”

Related: Sunak’s focus on Rwanda has created a rod for his own back

But on Friday newly-appointed migration minister Tom Pursglove defended the tactic. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’ve not spent an awful amount of time on Twitter in the last 24 hours as you’ll imagine, having just been appointed yesterday and trying to immerse myself in all of the detail.

“But the bottom line is it does highlight the fact that the Labour Party doesn’t have a credible alternative.

“I’m sure that Alicia and other colleagues will have fed in their views to central office and the party chairman.”

Meanwhile, other users sought to ridicule the Conservatives by tweeting their own versions of the image.

One tweeted the same presenter with the caption: “Tories when you ask them to do their job.” Another tweeted a picture of the Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns raising her middle finger to a crowd outside Downing Street last year, with the comment: “Conservatives when you ask them how net migration quadrupled under their watch.”

The row highlights the way in which Sunak’s attempts to restart his scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda have left his party even more divided over immigration than they were before.

Right-wing Tory backbenchers say they are willing to vote against the bill if it does not incorporate changes they are likely to demand in the coming days.

Meanwhile centrist MPs have made clear their dissatisfaction about Sunak’s decision to overrule some of Britain’s domestic and international human rights obligations in an attempt to get flights off the ground.