There was a time when playful rhetoric and the ability to entertain was an endearing quality only the best politicians possessed. A time when President Obama’s poetic prose would leave audiences in an awe-inspired stupor, when John Prescott’s candour would engage those most politically disenfranchised. This is not that time. Our current political climate is one of high-emotions gridlocked at fever-pitch. Despite this, we have a Prime Minister unbothered that his language and his rhetoric might spur others onto acting in very real and dangerous ways.
On Wednesday the 25th of September 2019 during a period of intense questioning in parliament, Boris Johnson was repeatedly challenged over his use of the word “surrender” (as well as other offensive language), to describe legislation passed earlier in the month which aimed to block a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
Ms Sherriff, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, told the Commons that the Prime Minister had “continually used pejorative language to describe an Act of Parliament passed by this House”.
Pointing to a plaque in the chamber commemorating Mrs Cox, who was murdered by a right-wing extremist, she said: “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.”
“They often quote his words ‘surrender Act’, ‘betrayal’, ‘traitor’ and I for one am sick of it.” Ms Sherriff continued,
“We must moderate our language, and it has to come from the Prime Minister first.”
Her statement was well received by other members who acknowledged the message with nods and murmurings of “hear, hear”. She went on to speak about the real-life implications of Johnson’s words in such a politically charged atmosphere. As often seen in politics, what leaders allow for, followers do in excess. Female MP’s were eager to show the Prime Minister the connection between words and actions. After the statement, the Prime Minister had his chance to respond. This was a chance for Boris Johnson to show some moral leadership, to attempt to cool the political climate and restore some order to what BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg described as an “absolute bear pit”.
Like much of Johnson’s premiership, when presented with the opportunity to demonstrate some real leadership, he absconded and doubled down on his earlier comments.
In response, Mr Johnson said: “I have to say, Mr Speaker, I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.”
The speaker John Bercow went on to respond: “Order. I appeal to the House as a whole to debate these issues calmly. I can see the gesticulation from colleagues, and I am not— [Interruption.] Order. Mr Linden, please; allow me to respond. I am not unmindful of the purport of that gesticulation. I have reminded colleagues across the House of the very long-established precepts of “Erskine May” in relation to the conduct of debate. I must simply say that nothing disorderly— [Interruption.]“
The Prime Minister’s statement rallied many more people against him a feat many thought impossible. He chose to be divisive and provocative rather than model the kind of moral leadership the Country craves at this juncture. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon said there was “a gaping moral vacuum where the office of prime minister used to be”.
Jo Cox’s Memory
Tracy Brabin, who was elected as MP for Batley and Spen after Mrs Cox was murdered, also urged the Prime Minister to moderate his language “so that we will all feel secure when we’re going about our jobs”. To this, Mr Johnson replied that “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”.
Mrs Cox’s husband, Brendan, later tweeted he felt “sick at Jo’s name being used in this way”.
Invoking the death of a beloved MP to make a political point in this manner is frankly below the office of Prime Minister and is something we should not see from the highest office in the land. At a time where so much is at stake, people can be expected to say colourful things, however, historically, it has been the Prime Minister’s role to set the tone of debates and modal disagreement without disagreeableness.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said the Prime Minister was an “utter disgrace” for his response to the questions on his language and the calls for him to moderate.
She told MPs: “I today have reported to the police a threat against my child. That has been dismissed as ‘humbug’. This is a disgraceful state of affairs and we must be able to find a way to conduct ourselves better.”
A Chain reaction
Labour MP Jess Phillips – who asked an urgent question about political rhetoric and the safety of MPs – says a man has been arrested after calling her a “fascist” and trying to “kick the door” of her constituency office.
“I’ve only just heard about it myself but my staff had to be locked into my office while the man tried to smash the windows and kick the door,” Phillips told London radio station LBC.
“I don’t know what I can say because the man has been arrested,” she added.
Phillips has spoken frequently about abuse she has suffered as an MP. Earlier on Thursday, she criticised Boris Johnson in the House of Commons after the Prime Minister dismissed concerns about lawmakers’ safety.
“We all get abuse, and I’ve had a death threat this week that literally quoted the Prime Minister and used the Prime Minister’s name and words in a death threat that was delivered to my staff,” she told Parliament.
I won’t be bullied
Johnson spoke at a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs the morning after being branded a disgrace for dismissing concerns about his inflammatory language in light of Cox’s murder by a far-right extremist.
The Prime Minister addressed some of the criticism, saying there was a need to moderate violent language on all sides of the debate. But he was reported to have told Tory MPs on Thursday that he would continue to use his language about the Benn Act (formally called the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019) to stop a no-deal Brexit. He dubs it the “surrender bill” despite criticism that this paints his opponents in parliament as traitors guilty of betrayal.
Tory MPs said the mood of Johnson’s meeting had been “largely supportive” but others sighed or raised their eyebrows when asked how he had performed.
Faced with so much criticism and calls to apologise, the Prime Minister seems unwilling to concede that we may have gone too far this time. A leader unwilling to apologise and recognise his faults is one that lacks the ability to be reflexive. This is a most crucial skill in a time many are blinded by ideology.
When Johnson came to office, there was much talk about unity. He spoke about unifying leavers and remainers, unifying his party and unifying the country around a common cause. The only thing he seems to be unifying is the opposition against himself. Whilst many before could tolerate his moral shortcomings because it was often tempered by his good humour and cheer, the gloss is wearing off. What the world can now see is a morally bankrupt leader more worried about winning the argument than actually bringing about the change of which he speaks emphatically.