The House of Commons has just turned very ugly indeed, after Boris Johnson dismissed a Labour MP who was complaining about the abuse and threats she and other colleagues are receiving as ‘humbug’. Paula Sherriff – who has had a particularly sustained campaign of abuse against her, including swastikas being left at her office – made an angry appeal to the Prime Minister to consider his language, and referred to the murder of her colleague Jo Cox as she did. This is what happened:
Paula Sherriff: I genuinely do not seek to stifle robust debate but this evening the Prime Minister has continually used pejorative language to describe an Act of Parliament passed by this House and I’m sure that you would agree Mr Speaker that we should not resort to using offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language about legislation which we do not like and we stand here, Mr Speaker, under the shield of our departed friend with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day and 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 it has to come from the Prime Minister first, so I would be interested in hearing his opinion he should be absolutely ashamed of himself
Boris Johnson: I think Mr Speaker I have to say Mr Speaker I have never heard so much humbug in my life.
The House descended into uproar, and Speaker Bercow had to call order, before Johnson pursued his point about why he called it the ‘Surrender Act’. He didn’t acknowledge anything Sherriff had said about Cox.
When Tracy Brabin, the MP who replaced Cox as MP for Batley and Spen after her death, complained, Johnson had this to say:
‘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. and I absolutely do and I think that it is the continuing inability of this Parliament to get Brexit done that is causing the anxiety and the ill-feeling that is now rampant in our country. get it done and we will solve the problem.’
Now, the Prime Minister might disagree that there is anything wrong with trying to badge the legislation in this way, just as all parties use shorter, more attention-grabbing language to describe policies they don’t like. But the mistake Johnson made was to dismiss the entire complaint – including the reference to Cox – as ‘humbug’. It made him sound as though he didn’t care about the abuse that MPs are receiving, as though he doesn’t think that language matters in this highly febrile environment.
Sherriff was elected at the same time as Cox. So was Johnson. Many of the late MP’s friends were sitting around her in the Commons as this exchange took place with Johnson. Yet he failed to acknowledge the reference to her, as though it was a cheap political point to brush off, rather than the still-painful memory of a murdered colleague. It has been well-publicised that MPs are increasingly on the end of threats, abuse and harassment on and offline, and not just Labour MPs. Conservative candidates spoke about the abuse they received during the 2017 election. Some of them had offices and cars vandalised. Since Cox’s murder, the political atmosphere has become even more of a poisonous smog. Labour MP Rosie Cooper was the subject of a plot to kill her which resulted in Jack Renshaw, who had bought a machete to kill her, being sentenced to life imprisonment. She told the Commons that she was ‘to be murdered to send a message to the state, to send a message to this place’.
Perhaps Johnson was so caught up in the atmosphere of the Commons after more than an hour at the dispatch box that he got carried away. Perhaps he felt that to even accept that MPs are facing these threats and that, yes, one of their number was murdered just over three years ago, would be to contradict his utter refusal throughout this session to show any contrition for the prorogation of parliament.
Whatever lay behind it, this was not a statesmanlike response at all. It suggested a worrying lack of emotional intelligence from the Prime Minister and a failure to sense the responsibility of his role.