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.