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15 February 2024

Threats against MPs need to be taken more seriously

The dangers that MPs already faced have intensified since the Gaza war began.

By Freddie Hayward

Around 7pm on Christmas Eve 2023, a fire broke out in a shed beside the Conservative MP Mike Freer’s constituency office in North Finchley, London. It spread to his building, rising through three floors before the fire brigade arrived. Soot coated the ring binders on the shelf. Plaster was peeling away from the wall. A sign bearing the Conservative Party slogan alongside Freer’s name was left unmarked beneath a desk. A man and a woman have been charged with arson and will stand trial in July.  

Freer regularly wears a stab vest and carries a panic alarm, as do his staff. He’s done so since another Tory MP, David Amess, was stabbed 20 times in an Essex church by Ali Harbi Ali because Amess supported bombing Islamic State in 2015. Ali also had Freer under surveillance. At the end of January, Freer said he was stepping down at the next general election because the danger had become unbearable.

Threats against MPs have risen since the Brexit vote in 2016. But some MPs think there has been a marked increase since the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted in October. There has been a spate of reported incidences this year already. The Tory MP Jonathan Gullis said he had to bulletproof his windows and install panic alarms in his bedroom. Tobias Ellwood had his house surrounded earlier this week by pro-Palestinian protesters holding signs accusing him of complicity in genocide. His children were home. A similar protest took place outside Wes Streeting’s office in November. An advert has since been put up in his constituency bearing the slogan: “Vote for genocide. Vote Labour”. A source said the perpetrators are a small group with little local backing.

“We’ve always had long-standing issues with security because of the far right and some Islamic extremist stuff over the years,” said one Labour MP (the police have advised them not to disclose their name). “You don’t hear much about it, and I think there’s a sort of collective wish that that’s the case.”

The parliamentary police, I gather, recently met with MPs to discuss security in their constituencies. Some London Labour MPs have been told they are not welcome in their local mosques. The recent reports of anti-Semitic comments from Labour Party members have elicited recriminations within the Labour movement as doubts have been cast over the success of Starmer’s mission to rid the party of anti-Jewish hatred. One Labour MP spoke anxiously about the implications of whether they voted for a ceasefire or not.

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Constituents have a right to lobby their MPs. But wherever the law may draw the line between threatening behaviour and the democratic right of voters to petition their political representatives, the reality is that fewer people will want to be members of parliament because of the abuse they will receive. As Freer said: “There comes a point when the threats to your personal safety become too much.”

The common accusation thrown against MPs is that they are “not like us”. The reality is that they are – in all their vices, vulnerabilities and flaws. Speak to MPs – particularly Conservative MPs – and the toll the past few years have taken on their well-being is patent, and very human. We agonise over how lobbying scandals and cronyism may influence MPs’ votes, less so over the threats to legislators themselves.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: How indecision turned toxic for Labour in Rochdale]

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