LONDON — Boris Johnson is not backing down over his language about murdered Labour MP Jo Cox.
Asked by POLITICO whether he had second thoughts about claiming the way to honor the late MP was by delivering Brexit, the prime minister ducked the question.
“I think the best thing for our country is to get Brexit done and bring us all together,” he said. “That is what we are going to do.”
The prime minister has faced widespread criticism for the combative language he used in the House of Commons Wednesday in response to pleas from Labour MPs that he moderate his tone because of concern that war-like descriptions of Brexit were fueling violence in the country.
Johnson denied having dismissed the abuse MPs face from members of the public as “humbug,” insisting “that is not what I said.”
A senior government official said today that MPs had to take responsibility for Brexit because parliament voted to hold the referendum and also backed triggering Article 50 which started the negotiations with Brussels. Some in Number 10 say the current Brexit deadlock in the House of Commons, where there is no clear majority for any approach to deal with the issue, calls for strong language.
The prime minister’s spokesperson defended Johnson’s description of the law designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit as the “Surrender Act.”
“[The prime minister] has and did set out in great detail last night his very serious concerns about that piece of legislation. He said it would oblige us to stay in the EU for month after month,” the spokesperson said. “It would take away from this country the ability to decide how long the extension [to negotiations] would be and it would give that power to the EU. It would absolutely undermine our ability to negotiate properly in Brussels.”
Downing Street hopes the current dispute will play into their strategy of portraying Johnson as a champion of those who voted for Brexit, fighting a recalcitrant parliament, and that the more outrage they provoke in MPs, the more this narrative is reinforced.
Similar tactics were deployed during the Vote Leave campaign, with the erroneous claim that EU membership costs the U.K. £350 million a week were repeated over and over despite objections from opponents, because it kept the debate on Vote Leave’s favored battlefield: the cost of the EU, and the ability to redirect that money to the NHS.
Hostile House of Commons
During an angry Commons debate on Wednesday night, Labour MP Paula Sheriff said she had received death threats from members of the public containing words used by the prime minister such as “surrender” — the term Johnson used in the same debate to describe a new law which will force a Brexit delay if no deal is agreed with Brussels.
“I have to say that I have never heard such humbug in all my life,” Johnson shot back.
He later told Labour MP Tracy Brabin, who was elected to replace Cox after she was murdered by a far-right extremist shortly before the EU referendum, that “the best way to honor the memory of Jo Cox and to bring this country together is, I think, to get Brexit done.”
Former Tory MP Nicholas Soames said this morning that he felt “despair” at the prime minister’s words. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, he said: “What the prime minister did yesterday is to drive it [the country] further apart.”
However, Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly told the same program that the “highly charged” atmosphere in parliament would only calm down once Brexit was resolved. He added the comment from Johnson about “humbug” referred to other claims made by Sheriff that were untrue.
But Sheriff argued the prime minister was “inciting hatred towards MPs” at a time when abuse of public figures was at an all-time high. Speaking to the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire, she said: “People are really frightened and for him to treat it almost like a joke, was absolutely horrific and demeans the office of prime minister.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is funded by the government but operates independently, also issued a statement criticizing the use of hostile language in the Brexit debate.
“Words have consequences and after the referendum we wrote to all political parties reminding them of the need for respectful debate at all times — no matter how difficult the issues,” its chairman, David Isaac, said. “Sadly this has not happened. I urge all our politicians to show the best version of themselves so all views are heard. Hard line rhetoric and gestures only serve to create a more polarised society and will not heal the divisions that exist in our country.”
Brexit consensus further away
Another Labour MP, Lisa Nandy, told the Commons the hostile approach by Downing Street was making it “much more difficult” for opposition MPs who want Brexit delivered to work with the government to pass a deal.
Junior Cabinet Office Minister Kevin Foster was sent by the government to respond to an urgent question in the House of Commons on the prime minister’s language.
Repeating the prime minister’s insistence that delivering Brexit was the best way to cool the political temperature, he said: “The biggest issue is that delay will just bring more division to this country.”
He added that the best way to tackle the issue was to “bring a resolution to debates.”
Speaking in the same debate, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The prime minister’s language and demeanor yesterday was frankly nothing short of disgraceful.
“Three years ago our colleague, our member, Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right activist shouting ‘Britain First, this is for Britain.’ The language that politicians use matters and has real consequences.
“To dismiss concerns from members about the death threats they receive and to dismiss concerns that the language by the prime minister is being repeated in those death threats is reprehensible.”