Boris Johnson faces fury in Parliament after Brexit showdown
Last night, things got very ugly in the House of Commons.
On their first day back at work after, a bitter row broke out in Westminster about the former Labour MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered in an act of political violence in 2016.
Paula Sherriff, one of Cox’s Labour colleagues, said to the Prime Minister that many MPs are subject to “death threats and abuse every single day,” and that those threats often come with the parroted words of the Prime Minister.
Johnson replied by saying that the assertion was “humbug”. He responded to another Labour MP by saying: “The best way to honor the memory of Jo Cox, and indeed to bring this country together, would be, I think, to get Brexit done.”
In Westminster, politics is far too often seen as a clever game where opponents set traps for one another. These traps usually have a single aim: To make the other less popular with the public.
In the context of Brexit, this has got nasty and personal. The two main parties and their leaders embody the polar opposites of each other’s values. And this has bred genuine animosity.
British politics has never been more divided and it’s easy to see the temptation of leaning into this sincere disdain when campaigning against a rival.
Many politicians claim their motivation for working in politics is to change the lives of ordinary people. But it does at times seem forgotten that what is said in Westminster is heard out in the real world.
Earlier this year, Lyra McKee, a journalist in Northern Ireland, was murdered by a terrorist group called the New IRA while covering a sectarian clash. While no one is claiming that Brexit was the cause of this murder, it’s hard to argue that the instability of Brexit didn’t create the perfect conditions for this conflict to take place.
Since the Brexit referendum, a number of MPs have received near-constant streams of abuse on social media for their stances on Brexit. This abuse has ranged from harassment to outright threats of rape and murder. These threats often mirror the language heard in the House of Commons.
The abuse crosses the political spectrum. Earlier this year, in a bizarre new trend, right-wing politicians had milkshakes thrown over them and videos of the attacks were posted to social media. This might seem light-hearted fun, but being on the receiving end of it is doubtless terrifying. And in such a toxic atmosphere, it’s easy to see how quickly these things could escalate.
It shouldn’t be a controversial opinion, but it’s worth saying: If the friend of someone who was murdered in an overtly political attack tells you that they fear your language is creating an atmosphere that could lead to a similar attack, you should probably just listen. Even if you disagree. Especially if you are the Prime Minister.
Here's the moment the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, told MPs that the atmosphere in the Commons had grown "toxic," and pleaded for more reasoned debate.
Heated scenes in the House of Commons dominated most front pages in the UK on Thursday.
The left-leaning Daily Mirror described Boris Johnson as the "man with no shame," for his comments about Jo Cox's murder and the safety of MPs.
The Times reflected on the atmosphere in Parliament, which it described as hitting a "boiling point" -- while the Telegraph led on Johnson's comments that the chamber must face its "day of reckoning."
The pro-Brexit Daily Express tabloid led on the same statement.
The Guardian, meanwhile, focused on lawmakers' outrage over Johnson's remarks.
Several lawmakers have tweeted about the legacy of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, and their desire for a calmer political atmosphere, in the aftermath of Boris Johnson's comments that the best way to honor her is to "get Brexit done."
Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson said Cox, a rising star in the party before she was killed in a brutal attack in 2016, was a "potential Prime Minister."
The opposition party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said the comments show Johnson is "unfit to be Prime Minister." Corbyn added in another tweet that Johnson is "whipping up division with language that's indistinguishable from the far right."
Nick Boles, a former Conservative who left the party over its Brexit strategy, said he "must do better" with his own words of criticism for the government.
James Duddridge, a junior Brexit minister, is representing the government in the Commons -- where lawmakers are repeatedly asking whether Boris Johnson will comply with the law that requires him to ask for a Brexit extension if he can't secure a deal.
Duddridge has said on numerous occasions that the government will "obey the law at every stage and turn of this process."
But he has also skirted around the question, refusing to lay out under what circumstances the government will ask for an extension, suggesting that the interpretation of the law could change, and saying the government will take "confidential" legal advice on the issue.
Labour's shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, noted that previous iterations of the law under Theresa May's tenure did not include such specific instructions -- such as the requirement to accept an EU's extension offer -- because lawmakers felt she "could be trusted."
"Those were not in the previous version of this Act which was passed in April because there was a consensus the then-prime minister would comply with the law, understood the rule of law and could be trusted, and therefore it wasn't necessary to put them in," Starmer said.
"They are in the Act now because, I'm afraid to say, this is a low point in our history, across this House those assumptions no longer hold. And the answers given last night by the Prime Minister and his behavior make it less likely," he added.
Even in 2019, with few political norms yet to be stripped away, certain scenes still have the ability to shock.
That was the case on Wednesday evening in the Commons, when a confrontational Boris Johnson provoked fury with his cavalier approach to concern over threats to MPs -- and then, more extraordinarily still, when he suggested that achieving his Brexit strategy would be the best way to honor Jo Cox, who was murdered days before the 2016 referendum.
Here are the exchanges:
This is the question put to Johnson by Paula Sherriff, a Labour lawmaker, who referred to Cox's killing and the death threats still received by MPs: "We stand here, Mr Speaker, under the shield of our departed friend. Many of us in this place are subject to death threats and abuse every single day. Let me tell the Prime Minister that they often quote his words—surrender Act, betrayal, traitor—and I, for one, am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and that has to come from the Prime Minister first, so I should be interested in hearing his opinion. He should be absolutely ashamed of himself."
Johnson replied: "I have to say that I have never heard such humbug in all my life."
He separately said to Tracy Brabin, the lawmaker elected in Jo Cox's seat after her murder: "What I will say is that the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox, and indeed to bring this country together, would be, I think, to get Brexit done. I absolutely do."
Brabin had also asked Johnson to tone down his rhetoric on Brexit. She asked Johnson "as a human being that, going forward, will he please, please moderate his language so that we will all feel secure when we are going about our jobs?"
Some context: Labour MP Jo Cox, 41, was stabbed and shot by right wing extremist Thomas Mair outside her office in Northern England in June 2016, in an attack that shocked Britain.
The frenzied street attack happened days before Britain voted on whether to remain in the European Union. Cox was a prominent supporter of the "Remain" campaign.
Mair, a Nazi sympathizer, was sentenced to a whole life term in November 2016.
Speaker John Bercow has opened a fractious session of Parliament by calling yesterday's scenes "toxic" and pleading for calmer scenes in the Commons today.
"I think there is a widespread sense across the House and beyond that yesterday, the House did itself no credit," he says.
"There was an atmosphere in the chamber worse than any I've known in my 22 years in the House. On both sides, passions were inflamed, angry words were uttered. The culture was toxic," he said.
"This country faces the most challenging political issue that we have grappled with in decades," he added.
"Members must be free to express themselves about it ... it ought however to be possible to disagree agreeably."
"Yesterday that was not the majority strain, I'm sorry to say," he went on, urging MPs to debate "as opponents, not as enemies."
He added that there would be an urgent question later today about the political culture and language in the Commons.
The Commons will kick off with plenty of Brexit-related intrigue in just a few moments, when the first urgent question is put forward.
It asks Boris Johnson on "complying with the law" in relation to the legislation passed earlier this month that forced him to ask for a Brexit extension if he can't strike a deal with the EU.
Then, later in the day, there'll be a vote on whether to allow a recess for the Conservative Party's conference. Normally that would be routine -- but lawmakers furious about Johnson shutting down Parliament could use it to serve him a dollop of revenge.
And a general debate later in the afternoon also seems likely to provide some fireworks -- it will focus on the "principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate."
The British Parliament has been back in business for less than a day and already the Brexit debate has reached a new and dizzying level of bizarreness.
On Wednesday evening amid ugly scenes in the House of Commons, a combative Boris Johnson took the extraordinary step of daring Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the official opposition, to call a vote of no confidence in the government he leads.
"This Parliament must either stand aside and let this government get Brexit done, or bring a vote of confidence and finally face the day of reckoning with the voters," he said.
Corbyn declined Johnson's kind offer. "I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement," he told lawmakers. "Unfortunately, it was like his illegal shutting down of Parliament -- null, of no effect, and should be quashed, in the words of the Supreme Court."
To people looking on from the UK and around the world, it all must have looked completely topsy-turvy. Johnson says he wants an election, but can't make it happen. The opposition claims it wants an election, but won't make it happen. British politics is in a deeply weird place. The government and the opposition each hold the keys to giving the other what they want, but neither wants to be the one to release the lock.