Long-serving lawmakers, veteran journalists and British historians said they had never seen a more noxious session in Parliament than the one that unfolded Wednesday, when Johnson returned to face lawmakers after the Supreme Court ruled that his suspension of the legislature had been “unlawful.”
Opening Parliament on Thursday, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said the atmosphere the previous day was “worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years in the House.”
“On both sides passions were inflamed, angry words uttered, the culture was toxic,” Bercow said, urging lawmakers to “treat each other as opponents, not as enemies.”
In a bombastic performance Wednesday night, Johnson used terms such as “betray,” “sabotage” and “surrender” to describe the maneuvering of lawmakers who are getting in the way of his promise to leave the European Union, with or without a deal, on Oct. 31. His opponents called him “unfit to serve” and shouted for his resignation.
Johnson drew particular fury over his remarks about Jo Cox, a Labour lawmaker and Brexit opponent who was murdered days before a June 2016 referendum by a far-right domestic terrorist who yelled “Britain first!” before shooting and stabbing her to death.
Tracy Brabin, the Labour politician who holds Cox’s former seat, was among the lawmakers who took issue with Johnson’s refusal to say the “Benn Act,” as others did, to describe the legislation that requires him to seek a Brexit extension if he hasn’t struck a deal with the E.U. by Oct. 19. Instead, Johnson called it the “Surrender Act,” “Humiliation Act” and “Capitulation Act.”
Brabin said using those phrases suggested that those who disagree with Johnson are traitors, not patriots.
“Please, please, will he going forward moderate his language, so we will all feel secure when we are going about our jobs?” she pleaded.
Johnson responded that the best way to honor Cox’s memory would be to “get Brexit done.”
In another exchange, Labour lawmaker Paula Sherriff said, “We should not resort to using offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language for legislation that we do not like.”
Gesturing toward a wall plaque honoring Cox, she said: “We stand here, Mr. Speaker, under the shield of our departed friend, with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day. And let me tell the prime minister that they often quote his words ‘Surrender Act, betrayal, traitor,’ and I for one am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and it has to come from the prime minister first.”
Johnson responded that he had “never heard such humbug in all my life.”
Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox, said there were reckless words on both sides of the debate. There was a vicious cycle, he told the BBC on Thursday, “where language gets more extreme, response gets more extreme. . . . The reason it matters is because it has real-world consequences.”
Cox said: “I was genuinely shocked by the willingness to descend to vitriol, because I think it does long-lasting harm. To have this debate descend into this bear pit of polarization, I think it’s dangerous for our country.”
She said: “I think it was particularly tasteless for those who are grieving a mother, MP and friend to say the best way to honor her memory is to deliver the thing she and her family campaigned against — Brexit.”
She added that “my brother is using words like ‘surrender’ and ‘capitulation’ as if the people standing in the way of the blessed will of the people, as defined by the 17.4 million votes in 2016, should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred and feathered. I think that is highly reprehensible.”
In an aside, Rachel Johnson suggested — without citing any evidence — that her brother’s antagonistic strategy could reflect anything from the influence of his anti-establishment advisers to pressure “from people who have invested billions in shorting the pound” and want to profit from the possible economic havoc of a no-deal Brexit.
Nicholas Soames, an independent lawmaker and grandson of Johnson’s idol, Winston Churchill, told broadcasters that Johnson was stoking further divisions in a country already deeply divided over Brexit.
“I believe the job of the prime minister, even under very difficult circumstances, is to try and bring the country together, and what the prime minister did yesterday was to drive it further apart.”
Johnson didn’t seem to be backing down — much — on Thursday. In an interview with the BBC, he said, “It’s reasonable to call the Surrender Act what it is,” in a metaphorical way. He added, “Tempers do need to calm down and people need to come together.”
He stressed that “it’s only by getting Brexit done, that you’ll actually lance the boil, as it were, about the current anxiety.”
When asked to respond in Parliament to an “urgent question” about his use of allegedly inflammatory language, Johnson sent a junior minister.
It is true that the British Parliament is not a place for the thin-skinned. The weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons can be entertaining sport, a session often marked by cutting, even cruel, put-downs, in a contest of carefully crafted insult directed at “the right honorable gentleman.” But there are limits.
Johnson said he was well within the unwritten rules. Many of his colleagues think he went too far.
Johnson, like President Trump, has a reputation for blunt talk — and he regularly gets himself in trouble. During his first Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month, Johnson was asked to apologize for his previous writings that compared Muslim women in Britain who wear a niqab to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.”
Analysts say Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His strategy, they say, is to set up a “people versus Parliament” election, where the Latin-quoting, Eton- and Oxford-educated Johnson would run against his fellow elites who stand opposed to “the will of the people.”
The opposition parties don’t want an election before Oct. 31, the day Johnson has threatened to crash out of the E.U. without a withdrawal deal. But many think an election could follow soon after.
Johnson says he seeks to cut a deal to leave the E.U. in orderly fashion. But his abrasive style seems almost designed to alienate lawmakers whose support he will need if he hopes to pass a withdrawal deal through the House of Commons.
Several lawmakers, along with their staffers and family members, shared anecdotes of how they felt personally threatened in the current environment.
Ellie Cooper, the daughter of the Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper, wrote on Twitter about being “scared when our house gets fitted with panic buttons, industrial-locking doors and explosive bags to catch the mail.”
Nicky Morgan, who serves in Johnson’s cabinet, tweeted: “I know the PM is aware of & sympathetic about the threats far too many of us have received because I shared with him recently the threats I am getting. But at a time of strong feelings we all need to remind ourselves of the effect of everything we say on those watching us.”