“What shall I pray for?” asks Clive Hicks, vicar at Trinity Church in Ossett, a small market town outside Wakefield, West Yorkshire. We were chatting after the annual National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, last Tuesday morning. I ask him to pray for the Remain campaign and for the wounds the referendum had caused in our country to be healed. I could not have imagined how much we would need Clive’s prayers.
Later that day the Commons environmental audit committee, which I chair, holds a meeting with the farming minister George Eustice. We grill him for an hour on the government’s approach to tackling microplastics, which are in body washes and are accumulating on our coasts and in seafood. It is satisfying to hear Eustice, a former Ukip candidate and Leave campaigner, stating he wishes to work with the EU on a ban.
The day starts with me chairing a conference for the waste and recycling industry, then PMQs. I decide to wear a bright red Remain T-shirt. The Leave campaign have got their green-and-black ties, so why shouldn’t we do a bit of red Remain campaigning?
I have lunch with Mick and Pam Yates. Mick runs our Black Horse poetry group in Wakefield, which was set up by my predecessor-but-one, the late, great Walter Harrison MP. Every year I judge the poetry competition and offer the winner lunch at the House. We sit on the terrace and listen to Bob Geldof berating Nigel Farage from his boat. I tell them they picked a good day to see the full spectrum of parliamentary passions. Then I’m off to Yorkshire for an ill-tempered BBC Radio Leeds debate. We have just moved house in Wakefield so I hope I’ve remembered the alarm code.
My office is above the Labour Party Yorkshire headquarters. I spend a couple of hours phoning voters and chatting with colleagues from other offices as they come in to collect leaflets. Then Ciaran, a regional organiser, bursts in with the terrible news that Jo Cox has been stabbed and shot. I have a moment of total disbelief. We must evacuate the office. A gunman is on the loose in West Yorkshire and we must go somewhere safe. I burst into tears of shock and Michelle, my wonderful office manager, gives me a hug.
Everyone comes back to my house. There is no TV aerial, so no TV. We drink tea. I speak to Rosie Winterton, the chief whip; Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary; and our regional director. We wait. I send my caseworkers, Jo and Shaf, home. There was so much to do this morning. Now all we can do is wait, hope and pray. Michelle and I move chairs around. Then Brendan Cox tweets a picture of his wife by their boat and I know that she is dead. Jo Cox is dead. I go for a walk with Michelle and I repeat those terrible words. It is a waking nightmare.
Journalists are ringing, apologetically asking about Jo. They are just doing their job but I want the world to rewind to the morning, to when Jo was alive and doing a school assembly. I write about Jo, to tell the world what a fantastic woman she was.
We buy flowers and Michelle drives me to Birstall. I have no paper to write a note and head into a fast-food restaurant and write my note on one of their order pads. I am an idiot. I have written my message to Jo on a fast-food order pad. I realise that she wouldn’t have cared; she would have laughed. This is all part of the galloping surrealism that her loss has brought.
The vigil that night at St Peter’s Church in Birstall is solemn, tearful, prayerful. We are all in shock. Caroline Flint, Dan Jarvis, Mel Onn and their partners, Phil, Rachel and Chris, come back to my house with me, Yvette Cooper and her two staff. We toast Jo’s memory and eat curry. This is my housewarming with my friends. It is all so wrong. When they leave, I call Radio 5 Live and do an interview. I want to talk about Jo. It is so comforting to tell people about her energy and joyfulness, and it stops me feeling the pain of her loss. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want the day that began with Jo alive in the world to end without her.
The next day sees us back in regional office, stunned, helpless, red-eyed. I head to Leeds to do interviews. It is now my mission to talk about Jo. The journalists are grieving as well. They knew and liked Jo. When I stop talking I am overwhelmed by a terrible rage. We stand on the steps of Leeds Civic Hall for a minute’s silence. On the train back to London, I do a radio interview with US National Public Radio. The man in the next seat overhears and leans over. “I just want to say how sorry I am, and what a great job you all do.” I start crying. I want to go back to how things were, with people treating us with disdain. Jo was alive back then.
The weekend is my daughter’s First Holy Communion. Our church prays for Jo. Neighbours have left cards and friends all over the world have sent texts.
Monday is the recall of parliament. We can see Jo’s family in the gallery. The tributes are beautiful, and being with colleagues, all wearing our white roses, is a comfort. Afterwards we go to St Margaret’s Church, in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. We hear St Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things.” The Speaker’s chaplain, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, urges MPs to honour Jo’s memory by continuing to follow her example. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in Jo Cox.” Rest in peace, Jo.
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain