THE leader of the opposition in Southend is being urged to step down after a council meeting was beset by a tirade of fury in a race row.

Tony Cox, leader of Southend Conservative group, was told he was leading his party down a “dark path” at a full council meeting.

A series of heated exchanges were made at the virtual meeting during the discussion of a standards board hearing for Tory deputy mayor Mark Flewitt.

Mr Flewitt had been found to breach the council’s code of conduct by failing to “treat others with respect” when he “liked” a “racist comment” on Facebook.

Mr Flewitt had posted a news story about Chinese company Huawei on his Facebook page.

He then liked a comment which read: “You can’t trust these with sweet and sour dog, let alone national security.”

Mr Cox labelled the investigation - which is said to have cost £4,000 - as a “show trial” and the group refused to engage with the process.

He later stuck by his comments, saying the issue was for “political point scoring”.

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Martin Terry, independent councillor responsible for community safety, said he was “totally disgusted” at the group’s actions and that hate crimes were a big issue in the borough.

He said: “It suggests that the Southend Conservative councillors are turning their backs on any level of decency and standards in public life, it undermines the very foundations upon which a safe democracy can operate.”

He added that the Tories’ actions could increase hate crimes by “feeding negative stereotypes of the Chinese community” and called for Mr Cox to resign if the party could not re-engage with the standards board and apologise to the Chinese community.

Labour’s Matt Dent, Kursaal ward councillor, who made the complaint against Mr Flewitt, said he had been “deeply saddened” that the issue had progressed this far.

He felt that Mr Cox had taken the case as a reason to “insult, heckle, abuse and disrespect anyone he doesn’t agree with”.

He said: “I am I believe the only ethnic minority member of this council. And this whole saga has left me feeling deeply uncomfortable in this council.

“Councillors Cox and Flewitt have between them created an environment where it feels that racism will not be taken seriously and any attempt to stand up to it will be met with open hostility.

“I strongly urge the Conservative group to search their souls and ask themselves whether this dark path down councillor Cox is leading them is one they wish to take.

“I fear if they do there will be no coming back from this if they continue to follow him.”

Mr Cox said the whole affair was “shameful” and “race-baiting” and labelled Mr Terry a “hypocrite” saying he had once called all travellers “dangerous”.

Mr Cox said: “What I have seen here now is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“If I had thought I have a member of my group was a racist, they would be turfed out immediately.”

Mr Cox said that what the council has is “censorship, wokeness and political correctness” and that it was “authoritarianism cloaked as moral righteousness”.

He added: “The use of barristers to investigate the liking of a Facebook comment, taxpayers will be rightly concerned over the blasé use of taxpayer money.

“Yes, no Conservative took part in that hearing, and no Conservative will take part, in what will equate, as a council political show trial.”

Martin Terry responded saying his comment about “dangerous” travellers referred to an incident where a member of the travelling community had “punched a police officer” last summer and was a reference to a specific group.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Terry said: “I believe in openness and transparency. I think the Tories are very mistaken to withdraw and it was a breach of the rules not to attend the standards board meeting.”

Mr Cox’s comments were backed by fellow Tory councillors Dan Nelson and Alex Bright.

Mr Bright said: “It’s quite frankly disgusting. They know exactly what they are doing. Political point scoring and character assassinations this evening just weeks before the local elections is shameful.”

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Dent said: “It’s unfortunate that it got heated.

“I put the complaint in in July last year. It’s taken a long time they refused to co-operate with the investigation. I wanted him to apologise and that would have been the end of it.”

Mr Cox said he stood by his comments but added the issue “should never have got to this stage”.

He said: “It’s not what a complaints procedure is about. If we would have turned up at that meeting, at that standards hearing, we would have been culpable.

“I am not going to be lectured by race-baiting hypocrites. Petty allegations set race relations back to the dark ages.”