Protesters who interrupted a university debate speech by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg have been condemned by MPs from across the political spectrum after the event descended into a “violent” confrontation.
A string of Labour MPs denounced a group who allegedly broke into the event at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol and hurled insults at the Conservative.
Video footage posted to social media captured the scenes as Mr Rees-Mogg, who has been tipped as his party’s next leader, appeared to step in to separate rivals as onlookers call for them stop.
According to one witness the MP was “pushed and shoved” as a tussle broke out and police are probing the incident.
Mr Rees-Mogg said he chose to engage with the protesters because he “knew they weren’t going to hit me”.
“There were three hundred people here who wanted to engage in a serious debate and discussion, there were four or five people who wanted to shout — but they only wanted to shout,” he told the BBC.
“They weren’t physically threatening. A little bit of shouting doesn’t do anybody any harm... I take a very relaxed view of it.”
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah branded the protesters’ behaviour “thuggish”, tweeting: “Free speech under the law is fundamental to our democracy. Well done @Jacob_Rees_Mogg for not being cowed into silence.”
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said she “utterly” condemned the “behaviour of those tonight who tried to attack (Mr Rees-Mogg) whilst he was due to speak at an event he was invited to”.
“It’s extremely intimidating for any MP who travels alone to an event to be treated like this,” she said.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee tweeted: “This is appalling. No excuse for violence & aggression like this.”
The party’s MP for Bristol North West, Darren Jones, tweeted: “I’m deeply proud of Bristol and often deeply disagree with Jacob. But a small minority let down Bristol and our democracy tonight.”
Jo Swinson, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said she was “appalled” by Mr Rees-Mogg’s treatment, tweeting: “Deeply worrying to see violent tactics by political opponents.”
Brendan Cox, whose wife Jo, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016, said the incident was “absolutely disgraceful”, adding: “Those who try & deny elected representatives the chance to speak attack democracy itself.”
UWE Bristol said it was “absolutely appalled” by the group’s actions.
The MP said he did not feel in danger, adding: “If I felt threatened I wouldn’t have gone up to talk to them. They’re British, they weren’t going to do me any harm. They disagree with me, they disapprove of everything I stand for, but they are good, honest British citizens. They weren’t going to hit me.”
He told the Daily Telegraph the protesters shouted “no platform for Tory scum and other insults”, although he chose to engage with the group “to stop anyone being hit because the whole thing would have degenerated”.
UWE Bristol said it was believed a small group of protesters, who were not students at the university and did not have tickets to the event, broke into the lecture theatre through the back doors, before police and security were called.
The university’s Politics and International Relations Society, which organised the debate, said it was “sorry the event was overshadowed by the actions of a few non-students”, adding: “It detracts from the great attitude that UWE students have towards debate and challenging political opinions.”
Mr Rees-Mogg went ahead with his speech and was escorted back to his car after the event finished, a university spokesman said.
“We support the democratic right of free speech and peaceful protest. However, we strongly condemn the actions of protesters who disrupted normal debate and behaved in this way,” the university said.
BBC Somerset reporter James Craig said Mr Rees-Mogg tried to “talk the protesters down”.
“But at that point various other members of the audience got involved as well and that’s when this scuffle... happened and a lot of people got involved,” he told the broadcaster.
“It looked to me like Jacob Rees-Mogg himself got pushed and shoved, although he insists he wasn’t.”
Avon and Somerset Police appealed for anyone to come forward with mobile phone footage to help the inquiry.
The force said in a statement: “We were called to the University of the West of England’s Frenchay campus at about 6.30pm today following a report of a public order incident.
“No arrests were made and an investigation is under way to see if any criminal offences were committed.” – PA