Boris Johnson's no show angers MPs after 'toxic' Brexit debate

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt

Boris Johnson has been heavily criticsed by MPs for sending a junior government minister to answer questions about controversial remarks made in the House of Commons.

The prime minister came under fire for calling a law aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit the "surrender bill", and for claiming that murdered MP Jo Cox would have wanted to get "Brexit done".

Opposition MPs urged the prime minister to resign for the remarks, but Downing Street refused to apologise for the comments.

Labour's Jess Phillips asked the prime minister to appear in the House of Commons, and she delivered a scathing account of Mr Johnson's remarks.

Ms Philips said: "I want to ask the Prime Minister to apologise and to tell him that the bravest, strongest thing to say is sorry - it will make him look good, it will not upset the people who want Brexit in this country if he acts for once like a statesman."

After her speech in the Commons, Ms Phillips said Mr Johnson failed to answer any of her questions when the pair met in the lobby.

An official Downing Street spokesman said: "The PM obviously made the broader point last night that he believes we need to get the issue of Brexit resolved because it was causing anxiety and ill-feeling in the country."

They added: "The PM is very clear that whatever their views no MPs or anyone else in public life should face threats or intimidation. It's completely unacceptable."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Mr Johnson of encouraing people to act in "disgraceful and abusive" was with his language.In his interview, the Labour leader said: "The Prime Minister's language is encouraging people to behave in a disgraceful and abusive way to other public figures.

"I've witnessed it myself on the streets in this country."

Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan gave a stinging critique of Mr Johnson's handling of the situation, telling the Commons: "It is beyond embarrassing that the Prime Minister has sent a junior minister with a folder full of rebuttals today, making every excuse in the book."

She said unless Mr Johnson changes his language "the wounds that divide this country will turn into scars, permanent scars".

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson shared her personal experience of threats, and said language used by politicians from every side needed to be measured.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "It is a disgrace that the Prime Minister said this yesterday, he should apologise and the minister should apologise on his behalf."

Jo Cox was murdered in 2016 Credit: PA

Mr Johnson refused to answer questions from journalists as he left the backbencher Conservative 1922 committee meeting, but Tory MP Nigel Evans said the prime minister remained steadfast by the comments he made on Wednesday.

He told ITV News: "The vast majority of MPs who spoke were 100 per cent behind the prime minister, and the prime minister made it quite clear that irrespective of attempts to stop he using terms like surrender act, which he used to describe the Hilary Benn act, because yes it is emotive, but it is descriptive."

MPs voted against allowing a parliamentary recess for the Conservative party conference on Thursday.

A senior Tory source insisted the conference would go ahead anyway, but acknowledged that it may have to be "scaled back" in places if MPs have to remain at Westminster.

As parliamentary proceedings opened on Thursday, John Bercow said the atmosphere in the House of Commons on Wednesday night was the "worse than any I've known in my 22 years" in the Chamber.

Mr Bercow urged MPs from all sides to tone down the "toxic" rhetoric, adding that the House "did itself no credit" with the angry exchanges.

Mr Johnson provoked gasps in the Commons and was widely condemned after claiming the best way to honour Mrs Cox would be to “get Brexit done”.

The Prime Minister’s remark came after several MPs drew upon the memory of Mrs Cox when urging him to curb his “violent” and “dangerous” language.

Brendan Cox, widower of Mrs Cox, said he felt “a bit sick at Jo’s name being used in this way” while the Commons heard MPs were reduced to tears and some left the parliamentary estate owing to the “distress” caused.

Mrs Cox's sister, Kim Leadbetter, called for calmer language to be used be politicians. She told ITV News: "What I think matters is how you channel that anger. It would be very easy for me to give into the anger, the hatred, the despair. I feel those things every single day.

"But it's not helpful for me to give into those things. It'd be easy for me to come out here today and start piling in with my own anger, but that's not helpful to anybody."

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson described the PM’s words as “sickening” and appeared to fight back tears as she revealed she has reported to police a threat against her child.

Labour’s Paula Sherriff (Dewsbury) initially criticised Mr Johnson for his repeated use of “surrender act” when describing legislation designed to prevent ministers forcing through a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

She warned against using such language and mentioned Mrs Cox before highlighting that many MPs are subject to death threats and abuse.

But Mr Johnson labelled her remarks “humbug”, which prompted an angry response in the chamber – with shouts of “shame” emerging.

Labour’s Tracy Brabin, MP for Batley and Spen, who was elected to the seat after Mrs Cox was killed by a man with far-right sympathies during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, also called for the PM to moderate his language.

She said: “As the woman who has taken over a seat left by our dear friend Jo Cox, can I ask him in all honesty as a human being please, please will he going forward moderate his language so that we will all feel secure when we’re going about our jobs.”

Mr Johnson replied: “Of course there will be an attempt to try to obfuscate the effect of this Act, but it does – the Capitulation Act, or the Surrender Act or whatever you want to call it – it does, I’m sorry, but it greatly enfeebles, it greatly enfeebles this Government’s ability to negotiate.

“But what I will say is that the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox and indeed the best to bring this country together would be, I think, to get Brexit done.”

Earlier, Ms Sherriff said the PM had “continually used pejorative language to describe an Act of Parliament passed by this House”.

She added: “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.

“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.”

She added: “He should be absolutely ashamed of himself.” Her words prompted applause from the opposition benches.

Mr Johnson said: “I have to say, Mr Speaker, I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.”

The PM was later urged to clarify his remarks on Mrs Cox, to which he said: “I can, I think, to explain exactly what I mean because I believe that the continuing failure to deliver on the mandate of the people greatly exacerbated feelings and the best way to reduce that tension is, as I say, to get it done and then the whole country can move on.”