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Boris Johnson stands firm and ignores appeals to apologise over Jo Cox comments

There have been calls from UK parliamentarians on all sides to tackle a “toxic” political culture.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street earlier.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street earlier.
Image: PA Wire

Updated Sep 26th 2019, 4:48 PM

UK PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson has refused to apologise for comments he made last night when he said the best way to “honour the memory” of murdered MP Jo Cox would be “to get Brexit done”.

Johnson has come in for criticism today amid calls for him to help restrain the use of inflammatory language in the House of Commons.

House Speaker John Bercow said today that the atmosphere in the chamber last night was “worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years in the house”. He pleaded with parliamentarians on all sides to tackle the “toxic” political culture.

Johnson ignored questions from journalists as he left a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers this morning and Downing Street declined to say sorry for his words in the Commons.

Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered MP Jo Cox, was among those to plead for greater civility in political debate after her name was mentioned several times last night. 

Cox said the Brexit debate has descended into a “bear pit of polarisation” that is “dangerous” for the UK.

Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist a week before the Brexit vote in 2016. She had been a remain supporter.

Johnson had been responding to a number of opposition MPs who asked him to moderate his language so as not to ‘whip up’ threats and intimidation against members.

Johnson has repeatedly used the terms ‘Surrender Act’ and ‘Capitulation Act’ when referring to the Benn Act. This Act seeks to force the UK government to seek a Brexit extension to avoid a no-deal.


Several MPs asked Johnson to refrain from using such language with Tracy Brabin MP, who succeeded Cox in her former constituency, saying that members should “feel secure when we’re going about our jobs”.

In response, Johnson said: “What I will say is 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.”

Johnson also responded by saying “humbug” when Paula Sherriff MP said that his words have been quoted in death threats to members. 

It is understood that Johnson is not minded to change his language in relation to the Benn Act. One Downing Street insider told the Press Association:

If the question is ‘is he going to stop calling it a Surrender Bill’ then the answer to that is a categoric ‘no’.

Johnson came in for criticism from several UK politicians yesterday evening with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn today saying that his language was “indistinguishable from the far right”.  

The Prime Minister’s sister Rachel Johnson, a Change UK candidate in the recent European elections, today called her brother’s remarks “tasteless”.

“I think it was particularly tasteless for those who are grieving a mother, MP and friend to say the best way to honour her memory is to deliver the thing she and her family campaigned against — Brexit,” Rachel Johnson said.

She added that a lot of the heated rhetoric around Brexit “was initiated in the tabloids”, citing headlines condemning as “saboteurs” MPs who opposed leaving the EU, and judges who found against the government as “enemies of the people”.

Almost immediately after his wife’s name was used in the House of Commons last night, Brendan Cox called for more civility.

“Feel a bit sick at Jo’s name being used in this way. 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 demonise the other side and always hold onto what we have in common,” he tweeted.

Today, Brendan Cox told the BBC in an interview:

“It takes a fair amount to shock me now, but I think I was genuinely shocked by the willingness to descend to vitriol and the type of language that was used, because I think it does long-lasting harm.”

He spoke of threats to MPs and how some of them fear for their own safety as “the death threats … are still coming”.

“But I think the bigger damage is just to the tone of our politics – to have to this debate descend into this bear pit of polarisation, I think is dangerous for our country.”

jo-cox-shooting-anniversary Brendan Cox pictured in 2017. Source: John Stillwell/PA Images

He went on:

“I think this is something that is really important, that there is a willingness to jump out and decry the other side when they use language like ‘surrender’ or ‘traitor’ or ‘betrayal’ and I think that is inflammatory language. And I think as inflammatory are the people who have used the language of it being a coup and a dictatorship and fascism, which is often thrown at people who frankly people just disagree with. And I think both of those approaches are unacceptable.”

He added that “it’s not just bad behaviour by one side of the debate, this is something which has infected our politics and it’s this vicious cycle where language gets more extreme, response gets more extreme, it all gets hyped up”.

And the reason it matters is because it has real world consequences both to members of parliament but also in our country it creates an atmosphere where I think violence and attacks are more likely than they otherwise would have been.


There was further bad news for Johnson this afternoon after MPs voted against a three-day suspension of the house next week to allow for Johnson’s Conservative Party to h0old their annual conference. 

It represents the seventh successive House of Commons defeat for Johnson’s government, which no longer holds a majority. 

The conference is expected to go ahead regardless.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2019 and the Press Association 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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