Warlike rhetoric and subtle threats of violence against MPs by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson drew a furious response and threatened to overwhelm the return of Westminster this week.
The London parliament, back in action on Wednesday after Johnson’s attempt to shut it down was declared illegal by the Supreme Court, witnessed some of the most rancorous exchanges in living memory. Unbelievably, the British PM warned that opposition MPs could only be ‘safe’ if Britain’s departure from the EU went ahead on October 31. The comments came as friends of the late Jo Cox, murdered by a right-wing Brexiteer fanatic in 2016, protested at the increasingly violent rhetoric of the Tory extreme right.
Johnson was criticised for his use of the language of incitement which recall themes long used by hardline unionists against their rivals at the height of the conflict in Ireland. Opposition MPs said they were linked to an increase of incidents of violence and abuse directed at anti-Brexit MPs.
In an emotional speech across the House of Commons, Labour MP Paula Sheriff, who was a close friend of Cox, told Johnson: “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.
“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.”
To cries of “shame” from opposition MPs, Johnson replied: “I have never heard such humbug in all my life.”
He rubbed salt into the wound when he went on to suggest the best way to “honour” the murdered MP was “to get Brexit done”. He later added this was “the best way to ensure that every parliamentarian is properly safe”.
Another Labour MP Anna Turley said Johnson has descended to using “the language of fascism”.
“You could see, even after he was asked to moderate his language, even after he was told how it was making everybody feel, he kept using it. He was being deliberately provocative, he was deliberately, he knew exactly what he was doing, he was goading us with it, and that’s what’s absolutely unforgivable.
“This is the language of fascism. That sounds over the top but it’s true, it’s the language of othering, it’s the language of turning people against people, it’s divisive and it’s toxic and he knows that,” she said.
The far-right appeared happy to ratchet up tensions further. Political commentator Brendan O’Neill, speaking on BBC news talks show ‘Politics Live’, urged people to engage in street violence if the deadline for Brexit is missed.
He said English people “should riot” in analogy with the ten months of street violence by the right-wing ‘Gilets Jaune’ in France.
A sense of increasing polarisation and aggression within British society have led to warnings of a potential civil conflict in tandem with the collapse of the Union. But British prime minister Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser said the current toxic atmosphere was something that was to be expected.
Dominic Cummings, a hugely controversial figure who manipulated the 2016 referendum campaign to leave the EU, warned things would get worse unless the result of the referendum is delivered.
“If you are a bunch of politicians and you say that we swear we are going to respect the result of a democratic vote and after you lose you say ‘we don’t want to respect that vote’. What do you expect will happen?”