The House of Commons speaker has rebuked Boris Johnson for making a false insinuation that Labour leader Keir Starmer refused to prosecute the serial sex offender Jimmy Savile, but stopped short of demanding an apology.
Lindsay Hoyle's intervention came after the Tory former chief whip Julian Smith became the most senior Conservative to urge the British prime minister to withdraw the insinuation about Sir Keir.
After Sir Keir responded in the Commons to Sue Gray’s report on alleged Covid rule-breaking in Downing Street, Mr Johnson called him “a former director of public prosecutions, who spent more time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.
Mr Smith, the former Conservative Northern Ireland secretary and chief whip, said Mr Johnson’s comments about the child sexual abuser were unacceptable. The claim has been promoted by far-right conspiracist Facebook groups.
“The smear made against Keir Starmer relating to Jimmy Savile yesterday is wrong and cannot be defended,” he tweeted. “It should be withdrawn. False and baseless personal slurs are dangerous, corrode trust and can’t just be accepted as part of the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate.”
After a point of order by the Labour MP Chris Matheson on Tuesday, Mr Hoyle said he was disappointed about the state of the discourse. "I am far from satisfied that the comments in question were appropriate on this occasion," he said. "I want to see more compassionate, reasonable politics in this house and these sort of comments can only inflame opinions."
Two cabinet ministers have defended Mr Johnson’s decision to use the false claim in the Commons but one admitted they could not substantiate it.
The deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, said it was part of the "cut and thrust of parliamentary debates and exchanges" but said he was not prepared to repeat the allegation.
“I don’t have the facts to verify this. I don’t have the facts to justify that. I can’t substantiate that claim,” Mr Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, told Channel 4 News: "I have no idea of the background of Keir Starmer. The prime minister tells the truth."
Speaking on Sky News, the Labour leader said it was clear Tory MPs were uncomfortable with the false claim.
“It’s a ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls. I saw the faces of the Conservative MPs, the disgust on their faces that their prime minister was debasing himself by sinking so low in the chamber was clear,” he said.
“He’d been advised not to do it because it’s obviously not true, but he does it because he doesn’t understand what honesty and integrity means. Many of them expressed that to me, disgust at their prime minister for debasing himself in the House of Commons instead of acting with the contrition and the integrity that he should have shown yesterday.
“He does what he always does, which is to try to drag everybody into the gutter with him. One thing we know about this prime minister is everybody who has ever come into contact with him always gets damaged in the process.”
Mr Johnson’s insinuation in parliament that Sir Keir personally failed to charge Savile echoes claims made by online conspiracy theorists. – Guardian