UK PM Johnson faces backlash over confrontational tone
Characterized an opposition law ordering a Brexit delay as a ``surrender act.''
LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a backlash from furious lawmakers Sept. 26 over his use of charged and confrontational language in Parliament about opponents of his Brexit plan. The Speaker of the House of Commons warned that the country’s political culture had turned “toxic.”
In a raucous, bad-tempered debate on Sept. 25, Johnson characterized an opposition law ordering a Brexit delay as a “surrender act” and a “humiliation bill” and said delaying Brexit would “betray” British voters. He also brushed off concerns that his forceful language might endanger legislators as “humbug.”
Johnson took power two months ago with a “do or die” promise that Britain will leave the European Union on the scheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a Brexit divorce deal. He’s pitting himself against lawmakers who are determined to avoid a no-deal exit, which economists say would disrupt trade with the EU and plunge the U.K. into recession.
Opponents accuse the prime minister of fomenting violence and hatred with his populist, people-versus-politicians rhetoric.
Some in Parliament warned Johnson to be more cautious, given the 2016 killing of legislator Jo Cox. The Labour lawmaker was murdered a week before Britain’s EU membership referendum by a far-right attacker shouting “death to traitors.”
Labour lawmaker Paula Sherriff brought up the death of Cox – and the death threats many legislators still face – and implored the prime minister to stop using “pejorative” language.
There was uproar in the Commons after Johnson replied: “I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.”
Labour legislator Jess Phillips on Thursday accused Johnson of deploying a “strategy to divide.”
“It is totally planned. It is completely and utterly a part of a strategy designed by somebody to harm and cause hatred in our country,” she said.
“When I hear of my friend’s murder and the way that it has made me and my colleagues feel, and feel scared, described as ‘humbug,’ I actually don’t feel anger towards the prime minister. I actually feel pity for those of you who still have to toe his line,” she added.
Phillips urged Johnson to act like a “statesman” and apologize.
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, declined to say sorry. But he said the prime minister believed that sending threats or intimidation to politicians was “completely unacceptable.”
The prime minister was also criticized by Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox, who said he felt “a bit sick” at the way her name was being used.
“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 demonize the other side and always hold onto what we have in common,” Cox tweeted.
Sept. 25’s fiery session of Parliament came a day after Britain’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Johnson’s attempt to suspend Parliament for five weeks until Oct. 14 stymied its scrutiny of the government’s Brexit policy. The court declared the suspension void.
Emotions spilled over as opposition legislators demanded Johnson apologize and resign for breaking the law. But Johnson ignored calls to step down, showed no signs of contrition and redoubled his attacks on the lawmakers who he accused of blocking Brexit.
As lawmakers returned Sept. 26, Commons Speaker John Bercow urged moderation and implored members of Parliament to “treat each other as opponents, not as enemies.”
“There was an atmosphere in the chamber worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years in the House,” Bercow said. “The culture was toxic.”
Johnson says he wants to strike an agreement with the bloc, but the EU says it is still waiting for useful proposals to come from Britain to unblock stalled negotiations.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that he is “still ready to work on any new legal and operational proposal” from Johnson, but indicated that insufficient progress had been achieved in the past few weeks.
“We are still waiting,” he said.
The EU agreed upon a Brexit divorce deal with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, but it was rejected in the British parliament three times, prompting May to resign.
Johnson now wants to drastically renegotiate the agreement or leave the 28-nation bloc without a deal on Oct. 31.