Boris Johnson refuses to apologise to Jo Cox’s family for Commons remarks

Bercow warns MPs of ‘toxic’ culture as government loses vote for three-day recess

Boris Johnson has refused to apologise to the family of murdered MP Jo Cox for suggesting that the best way to honour her memory would be to deliver Brexit. And he said he would continue to describe as a "surrender Bill" legislation requiring him to delay Brexit by three months if he fails to negotiate a withdrawal deal by October 19th.

“If you look at the language I was using, it’s important to be able to use a simple English word like surrender in a parliamentary context to describe a Bill that gives the power to the rest of the EU to keep us locked in the EU by their own decision and to decide how long we should be there,” he told the BBC.

The prime minister was speaking after a succession of MPs accused him of inflaming passions and fuelling hatred and violence by using words such as “surrender” and “betrayal” in the context of the debate over Brexit, following his combative Commons performance on Wednesday. Many condemned his dismissive response during a debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday night to women MPs who described the death threats they had received.

Brendan Cox, the widower of Ms Cox, who was campaigning against Brexit in the days before her murder in 2016 by a far-right activist, said he felt "a bit sick" when he heard what the prime minister said about his wife.


Mr Johnson was cheered by Conservative MPs when he addressed the backbench 1922 Committee on Thursday morning. But Lisa Nandy, one of a number of Labour MPs considering voting for a withdrawal agreement, said the prime minister's "horrendous, divisive language" was creating barriers across the Commons.

“For those of us who do want to work cross-party to achieve a deal, this is making it much, much more difficult,” she said.

As MPs returned to the Commons on Thursday, House of Commons speaker John Bercow pleaded with MPs on all sides to tackle the "toxic" political culture.

The speaker said the House “did itself no credit” in the angry exchanges that had taken place on Wednesday night.

“There was an atmosphere in the chamber worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years in the House.”

Recess vote

MPs on Thursday refused to go into recess next week for the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, voting against the government’s request to do so. A meeting of Mr Johnson’s political cabinet agreed that the conference will go ahead, although MPs will have to shuttle between Manchester and London to vote.

“They agreed that conference is an important occasion for members and a lot of Manchester businesses were reliant on the event taking place in its full format. Cabinet agreed that conference should address the public’s biggest concern of getting Brexit done to allow government to deliver on people’s domestic priorities,” a senior Conservative source said.

“Cabinet was given an in-depth briefing on the upcoming general election, voter attitudes and election strategy. The party chairman announced that September had been the party’s most successful fundraising month ever.”

Mr Johnson has repeatedly called on opposition parties to agree to an early general election. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders agreed on Thursday that they would not vote for an election until it was certain that a no-deal Brexit was blocked.

The opposition leaders agreed to meet again next Monday to examine other parliamentary mechanisms to ensure that Britain cannot leave the EU without a deal on October 31st.


Responding to the turmoil in the Commons, Mr Corbyn said the PM's language "was indistinguishable from the far-right", while his Liberal Democrat counterpart Jo Swinson said Mr Johnson's comments were "a disgrace".

Boris Johnson’s sister, Rachel Johnson, criticised his behaviour, saying it was “not helpful” to blame parliament for his Brexit difficulties, and claiming that he used the Commons despatch box as a “bully pulpit”.

The UK’s European Commissioner also criticised Boris Johnson, suggesting that his “extreme language” could fuel political violence.

Meanwhile, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Thursday that the UK has yet to provide “legal and operational” proposals that could break the impasse over its departure from the EU.

His comments came after the UK submitted its fourth technical paper to the EU this week to detail its proposals on customs arrangements after Brexit. Additional reporting: PA/Reuters

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times