WRITING in this newspaper last month, Kim Leadbeater, the sister of murdered MP Jo Cox, implored Boris Johnson to lower the political temperature, address strong emotions around Brexit and listen to people’s genuine concerns.
“Political discourse has reached a new low in the last three years and politicians of all persuasions have a responsibility to do something about it,” she argued. Her older sister, the Labour MP for Batley & Spen, was shot and stabbed by a right-wing extremist a week before the EU referendum in 2016.
Sadly, Ms Leadbeater’s assertions – that fuelling the frustration only adds to the sense of public despair and people in positions of responsibility have a duty to behave responsibly – would appear to be falling on deaf and disinterested ears.
Less than a month later, the new Prime Minister has accused Remain-supporting MPs of ‘collaborating’ with Brussels in order to prevent Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Using such incendiary language does nothing to lower the frazzled temperature and adds further fuel to those strong and divisive emotions Ms Leadbeater warns of.
In a Facebook question-and-answer session, of all places, Johnson denounced his more conciliatory Parliamentary colleagues and called their overtures “a terrible kind of collaboration”. He warned that the longer this kind of thing continued, the more likely it was that “we will be forced to leave with a no-deal Brexit”.
Anyone with half a sense of history knows that ‘collaboration’ is a loaded term. It suggests a complete dereliction of patriotism and an easy willingness to fall under the spell of anything which isn’t strictly British.
Let’s take a much-needed deep breath and step back for a moment. Really, there is no tangible connection between Remain supporters conversing with EU people and the reality that the Brexit deadline of October 31 looms ever closer; the two things can and do exist simultaneously.
Indeed, if he cared to see the bigger picture, Johnson might note that his remarks were met with dismay in both Brussels, where European diplomats hastily pointed out that it was the PM’s unacceptable demands that stood in the way of a deal. and in Westminster, where politicians with a sense of both history and conscience were aghast.
Good on Conservative MP Guto Bebb,for calling the comments “absolutely disgraceful” and cautioning that they could put MPs in danger. “I knew Jo Cox,” he said. “Boris Johnson should reflect very carefully on the fact he is using language about us collaborating with the EU when he knows full well of the threats people are facing.”
So vehement was Mr Bubb in his denouncement of his own leader, he’s now reported to be backing Jeremy Corbyn as caretaker Prime Minister to avoid the “generational damage” of a no-deal Brexit.
This is what our once-proud country has come to. Tory MPs upturning any sense of party loyalty to back a socialist in No. 10.
And please don’t tell me that this is exactly why Britain needs Brexit, to sort things out once and for all. If ‘things’ continue in this destructive vein, our country, built on the values of tolerance, understanding and acceptance, won’t recognise itself.
What we will have instead is a nasty place where ‘harsh, hostile politics’ are the ‘new normal’ as Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson put it. And our children will inherit this place and face a future in which free speech is met with destructive and horrific abuse and where irresponsible politicians gleefully stir the pot so that they can lord it over us with their ‘I know best’ attitudes.
Only last week, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, admitted he had received death threats after telling an Edinburgh Fringe audience that he would fight to stop the government from suspending parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit without consent.
Whatever you might think about Bercow as a bloke (and a Speaker of the House), no man in a democracy should be in fear of his life for trying to uphold democracy itself.
Yet, this is no longer the traditional and long-standing division between Conservative and Labour with some kind of liberal party in the middle. In what we might call the old order, everyone knew their place.
Pretty soon, we’ll look back with a horrible sense of loss at that two-party system of checks and balances, government and opposition, each side working hard to persuade voters that they deserve to be in charge.
In a world where decent, selfless MPs can be murdered in broad daylight and where the Prime Minister can be allowed to get away with pitching neighbour against neighbour on a social media forum, how I yearn for those quaint and altruistic times.