Boris Johnson has been accused of using dangerous, inflammatory language during Wednesday’s belligerent clashes in parliament, and for aggravating the UK’s bitter divisions over Brexit.
The House of Commons was in session for the first time since the country’s highest court ruling that the government’s earlier suspension of parliament was unlawful. Opening proceedings on Thursday, Speaker John Bercow described the exchanges as “toxic”.
Britain’s nationalist prime minister repeatedly described as a “Surrender Act” a new law designed to block a no-deal exit from the EU, he called the session a “zombie parliament”, and charged opposition parties with betrayal for failing to “uphold democracy”.
Johnson caused outrage with a dismissive response to an appeal to tone down his language and recall the fate of the murdered MP Jo Cox. The best way to honour her memory and bring the country together, he said, was to “get Brexit done”.
And he vilified opponents of his Brexit strategy, rejecting appeals to change tack to heal divisions in the country. The best way to achieve that, he repeated, was to deliver the result of the EU referendum.
Some of the premier’s supporters, however, have defended his performance – accusing opposition politicians of being abusive too.
What’s been the reaction to Johnson’s words and parliament’s angry scenes?
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband described the prime minister’s performance in a tweet as “deeply irresponsible, stoking division, using dangerous, inflammatory language, fanning the flames of hatred”.
There was criticism from within the government. Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan referred to the prime minister in saying "we all need to remind ourselves of the effect of everything we say on those watching us".
Former Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, now an independent in parliament after opposing the government’s Brexit policy, called the proceedings “poisonous” and said Boris Johnson should “start behaving like a prime minister”.
Jo Cox’s husband called Johnson’s words “sloppy” but did not single out the prime minister for criticism. Brendan Cox told the BBC he was “genuinely shocked by the willingness to descend to vitriol” on both sides, describing the Brexit debate as a “bear pit of polarisation”.
But there was praise for the prime minister from some Conservative politicians. Eurosceptic MP Owen Paterson said on Twitter: “Great to hear Boris Johnson robustly confirm that we will leave the EU on 31st October”. Johnny Mercer tweeted that the outrage was “confected from a political class totally devoid of the communities they claim to represent,” while acknowledging the prime minister should have been more sensitive about Jo Cox.
‘Parliament against the people’
Replying to questions for over three hours in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson’s stance was unapologetic, combative, and at times provocative.
The prime minister singled out the “pitiful” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as he charged opposition parties with being anti-democratic.
“All that matters to them now is an obsessive desire to overrule the referendum result,” Johnson said. “We will not betray the people who sent us here. That’s what they wanna do. We will not abandon the priorities that matter to the public. And we will continue to challenge those opposition parties to uphold democracy.”
Johnson – who has called for a general election to break the deadlock in parliament where his government has no majority – goaded Corbyn for refusing to grant it.
“The electorate are being held captive by this zombie parliament and this zombie opposition. He wants the entire country to be held captive in the EU after October 31,” he jeered.
Earlier, the Attorney General was taken to task for describing the lawmaking body as a “dead parliament”. Former minister Amber Rudd – who resigned this month in protest at Johnson’s Brexit strategy – urged Geoffrey Cox to “cease this language of pitting parliament against the people.”
In the Commons, Boris Johnson repeatedly referred to the recent law designed to block a no-deal Brexit as a “Surrender Act”, saying it had done “grave damage” and “made it more difficult for us to get a deal” with Brussels.
“What about the ‘Humiliation Act’, will that do any better?” the prime minister mocked, when challenged over his use of the term.
The Labour MP Paula Sheriff invoked the memory of Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered by a far-right extremist a week before the referendum in June 2016. She accused Johnson of continually using “pejorative language” to describe an act of parliament, and called on him to stop using “offensive, dangerous or inflammatory” terms.
“Many of us in this place are 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…. He should be absolutely ashamed of himself,” she implored.
Boris Johnson’s response provoked uproar. “I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life,” he said, prompting calls of “shame”.
He went on to defend his use of the term “Surrender Act to describe the recently-passed law, saying it undermined the government’s negotiating stance. The act says the prime minister must seek a three-month Brexit delay if a no deal is struck with the EU, and parliament does not approve a no-deal exit.
Brexit has reached an impasse between the UK and the EU, in the British parliament, and across the country.
Boris Johnson has tried to portray himself as a traditional “One Nation Tory” – but his Brexit plan and vilification of opponents suggest to his critics that he is only defending one faction.
Rory Stewart – one of 21 Conservative rebel MPs expelled from the party after opposing the government’s strategy in parliament – has long called for a compromise to reach a Brexit deal. He appealed to the prime minister to stop stoking divisions.
“He is pitting Brexit against Remain, young against old, Scotland against England, and people against the parliament,” said the former minister and Conservative leadership candidate. He called on Johnson to “speak with respect, with moderation, with compassion for our opponents in order to provide a foundation (with Europe) that does not just appeal to a single narrow faction, but to every citizen and party in this great country.”
“I think the juxtaposition is between democracy – which we are sticking up for, and the will of the people – and dither and delay, which is what the party opposite is standing for. And that appears to me to be a very clear dividing line, and I know which side I’m on,” Johnson replied.