Boris Johnson had already been labelled a disgrace for refusing to resign when the Supreme Court ruled he shut down Parliament illegally. But as MPs returned to work Wednesday, he managed to sink to a new low, invoking the name of a murdered MP in a way that sickened her widower.
In a fiery debate in the reconvened House of Commons, Labour MP Paula Sheriff called on Johnson to knock off the divisive, inflammatory rhetoric he’s adopted in pushing for Brexit, such as branding legislation intended to prevent a no-deal Brexit a “surrender act.”
Invoking the memory of the late Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered a week before the 2016 referendum by a far-right terrorist who yelled “death to traitors,” Sheriff said pro-Remain lawmakers were routinely targeted by extremist Brexiteers who echoed Johnson’s rhetoric of “betrayal” and “surrender” in their threats.
"We should not resort to using offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language for legislation that we do not like, and we stand here under the shield of our departed friend with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day,” said Sheriff, to applause from the Commons.
“We must moderate our language, and it has to come from the prime minister first."
But if MPs had been looking for an inkling of remorse or self-reflection from Johnson, it wasn’t forthcoming. “I have to say, Mr Speaker, I've never heard such humbug in all my life,” he replied.
Instead, the prime minister doubled down on the outrage, when Labour MP Tracy Brabin, who was elected in Cox's seat following her murder, repeated the call for Johnson to moderate his language, “so that we will all feel secure when we're going about our jobs.’
Johnson replied: “The best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox and indeed the best way to bring this country together would be, I think, to get Brexit done.”
That comment drew gasps in the House, and a broad wave of condemnation. Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox, tweeted that the use of his late wife’s name made him “feel a bit sick.”
“The best way to honour Jo is for all of us (no matter our views) to stand up for what we believe in, passionately and with determination. But never to demonise the other side and always hold onto what we have in common,” he tweeted, adding that the left’s use of words like “coup” and “fascist” were also inflammatory.
Jo Swinson, leader of the pro-Remain Lib Dems, labelled Johnson’s comments “disgraceful,” and revealed she had been forced to call the police after receiving a death threat that targeted her child.
Labour MP Jess Phillips said that Johnson’s own language — that he would rather be found “dead in a ditch” than fail to bring about Brexit — had been used verbatim in a death threat aimed at her.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, said she felt “disgust” at the prime minister, describing him as “untrustworthy, craven, [with] not a shred of concern for the consequences of his words or actions,” while newspaper the Daily Mirror labelled him the “man with no shame” on its front page.
The storm has rumbled on into Thursday for Johnson, revealing the depth of concern among pro-Remain lawmakers over the threats they have been facing for opposing the government’s strategy to take the country out of the EU by Oct. 31, deal or no deal.
Opening the session Thursday, House Speaker John Bercow called on MPs to end the “toxic” culture in Parliament, describing the atmosphere Wednesday as “worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years in the house.”
“Please lower the decibel level and treat each other as opponents rather than enemies,” he said.
Speaking to the BBC Thursday morning, Sheriff said MPs were infuriated by Johnson’s casual dismissal of the consequences of his rhetoric.
“We talk about it in the tearooms. People are really frightened and for him to treat it almost like a joke, was absolutely horrific and demeans the office of prime minister,” she said.
“I believe the prime minister is inciting hatred towards MPs. I understand the importance of saying that, but I know that feeling is shared by many of us.”
Cover: Britain's Prime Minster Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for Parliament in London, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox accused Parliament on Wednesday of being a "disgrace" as lawmakers returned for the first day of work since a bombshell court decision deemed Prime Minister Boris Johnson's suspension of Parliament to be illegal. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)