Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
25 September 2019

Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing when he talks about Jo Cox and Surrender Bills

The Prime Minster isn't ignorant or unaware of the byproduct of his language or approach.

By Stephen Bush

One of the worst new features of life as a British political journalist is that a recurrent part your day-to-day conversations with MPs will, at some point, touch on the death threats they receive.

MPs did receive death threats before 16 June 2016, the date of Jo Cox’s assassination, but up until then, they tended to file them with the invitations to obscure political societies, the requests that they find out where the British government keeps proof of extra-terrestrial life, and round robins from MPs they dislike about their select committee assignments.

But the killing of one of their colleagues – and the conviction of a group of far-right extremists for plotting to murder another of their number, the West Lancashire MP Rosie Cooper – has changed, understandably, how MPs respond to death threats. That is particularly acute on the Labour side, for obvious reasons, but the fear and unease is widespread.

Boris Johnson knows this, of course. He spent the summer cultivating Conservative MPs and hearing their concerns, and while those worries are held most strongly by Labour MPs and pro-Remain MPs, the fear that the increasingly virulent tone of British politics will lead to them becoming the target of violence is widespread in all political parties.

Since becoming Prime Minister, he has the benefit of receiving security briefings and regular updates about the various threats faced by the United Kingdom, including the rising tide of violent political extremism.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

And part of being Boris Johnson, of course, is knowing the importance and power of words. That was the route of his popular appeal, and although that has faded, the idea that he is a figure of great nationwide appeal was integral to his pitch to Conservative MPs.

Johnson knows full well that when he uses language like “Surrender Bill” it has real-world consequences. Indeed, that’s an active part of his political calculation: he thinks saying things like that will help him realign British politics on Leave-Remain lines, and that, thanks to a split opposition, he will be able to win a parliamentary majority, perhaps a large one.

So when he tells Paula Sherriff, a Labour MP who has faced serious death threats, that her request that he moderate his language is “humbug”, it’s not because he’s ignorant, or because he hasn’t fully absorbed the consequence of what he’s doing. He knows, too, that his behaviour makes it less likely that Labour MPs will vote for the deal, meaning that his only path to deliver Brexit is an election campaign in which he pumps yet more vitriol into the public bloodstream.

And why wouldn’t he? He knows, too, that criticism of him in the organs of the press that really matter will be couched in the language of “both sides”, and that ultimately, whether it works out for him, politically, there will always be close protection officers. It’ll always be someone else’s death threat, just as it is always somebody else’s restaurant, somebody else’s partner, somebody else’s child, and perhaps, if it goes wrong enough, somebody else’s country.