GP Insights

GP Insights # 157, 28 September 2019

UK: Parliament uproar over Boris Johnson’s language
Lakshman Chakravarthy N

What happened? 

As the Westminster resumes the session from 25 September over the Brexit deal, a bitter row has broken out about the former Labour Party MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered in the act of political violence in 2016. One of Cox’s colleagues has called on the harsh and threatening language of the Prime Minister saying that many MPs are subject to death threats every day which often come with the parroted words of the Prime Minister. Johnson has defended his parliamentary language by calling the assertion ‘humbug’. He further responded that “the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox is to get the Brexit done.”

The leaders of UK opposition parties have further met on 26 September to discuss a plan to stop Boris Johnson from taking the country out of the European Union without a deal. A bill called the Benn Bill has been introduced to stop a no-deal, and the Labour party proposed to hold an election as soon as the no-deal is blocked. The uproar in the Parliament occurred during the debate over the nature of the Benn bill which Johnson has termed as the ‘surrender bill.’ 

What is the background?

The Parliament has resumed its session after the Supreme Court called Johnson’s decision to prorogue as unconstitutional. The court has held that it was impossible to conclude there had been any reason “let alone a good reason - to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks.” 

This has given the scope to the opposition group of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Liberal Democratic leader Jo Swinson, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, Anna Soubry from the Independent Group for Change, Caroline Lucas from the Green Party and Liz Saville Roberts from Plaid Cymru to formulate a bill to stop a hard Brexit. 

What does it mean? 

The present uproar in the Parliament reveals several fault lines in the leadership as well as in the mannerisms among the Parliamentarians. 

First, as the Labour MP Jess Phillips has pointed out, the debate on the Brexit has steeped deep in the public psyche where the opposition has been subjected to frequent threats and name calls such as “a fascist.” The expression of outrage has become the common parlance with a hard-line language reflecting the frustration of the larger audience over the Brexit. As the leader of the ruling government when Boris Johnson refused to apologize to the lawmakers for his language, Jeremy Corbyn has said, the political rhetoric is bordering on use of destructive language giving expression to an already polarised British society. He was reflecting on Cox’s murder by a far-right activist shouting, “Britain first! This is for Britain.”  

Second, the Brexit has long brought the divisions among the major party, but this was the first time these divisions in the parliament have got nasty and personal. The two main parties and their leaders embody the polar opposites of each other’s values. The animosity is now targeted on personal humiliation. British politics has never been more divided, and it’s easy to see the temptation of leaning into this disdain during the parliamentary debates. The use of abusive language and trolling on social media crosses the political spectrum and often escalates and reflects in the debate inside the Westminster. 

Third, under the debate on the code of conduct by the parliamentarians, the fate of the Brexit also hangs in the balance after the Benn bill was introduced. However, the proponents of a new Bill to prevent No Deal could be difficult to pass that hinges on the Queen’s consent. The bill has entered a clause to impose a requirement that the Prime Minister either agrees to 31 January 2020 or agrees on any new exit date suggested by the European Union. As the procedural rules dictate, the House of Commons requires formal approval for the Bill by the Queen. Hence a strong argument has to be in place to formally receive the Queen’s consent beyond the negotiations by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  

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