UK leader Johnson faces backlash over confrontational tone

AP News
September 26, 2019 - 11:32 am
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo

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By Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday of whipping up anger and division with his charged language about opponents of Brexit, and the speaker of the House of Commons pleaded for an end to the "toxic" political atmosphere.

But government and Parliament remained at loggerheads, as lawmakers rejected a request to adjourn for a week so that Johnson's Conservatives can attend the governing party's annual conference.

The 306-289 vote makes it harder for Tory legislators to take part in the four-day gathering that starts Sunday in Manchester. The conference usually sees speeches from senior government officials, including the prime minister.

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It was the latest sign of the mistrust and animosity that have consumed British politics since the country narrowly voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. Three years later, Britain and its politicians remain bitterly divided over how, or whether, to leave.

In a raucous, ill-tempered parliamentary debate on Wednesday, Johnson characterized an opposition law ordering a Brexit delay as the "Surrender Act" and the "Humiliation Bill" and said postponing the country's departure would "betray" British voters. He also brushed off concerns that his forceful language might endanger legislators as "humbug."

Johnson took power two months ago with a "do-or-die" promise that Britain will leave the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a separation agreement outlining commercial relations with the Continent. His foes are determined to avoid a no-deal exit, which economists say would disrupt trade with the EU and plunge Britain into recession.

Opponents accuse the prime minister of fomenting violence and hatred with his populist, people-versus-politicians rhetoric.

"We can see what the prime minister was doing with that horrendous, divisive language yesterday," Labour Party lawmaker Lisa Nandy said Thursday. "We can see that this is a clear electoral strategy to whip up hate and try to divide us, and to whip up the hate of people against Parliament."

Some lawmakers warned Johnson to be more cautious, citing the 2016 killing of lawmaker Jo Cox. The Labour member of Parliament was shot and stabbed a week before Britain's EU membership referendum by a far-right attacker shouting, "Death to traitors!"

Labour lawmaker Paula Sherriff brought up the assassination — and the death threats many legislators still face — and implored the prime minister to stop using "pejorative" language.

Johnson caused an uproar when he replied: "I've never heard such humbug in all my life."

His critics included his sister Rachel Johnson, a journalist and opponent of Brexit who called his language "tasteless."

"My brother is using words like 'surrender,' 'capitulation,' as if the people who are standing in the way of the blessed 'will of the people' — as defined by 17.4 million votes in 2016 — should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred and feathered," she told Sky News. "And I think that is highly reprehensible language to use."

The prime minister's spokesman, James Slack, declined to apologize on Johnson's behalf. But he said Johnson believes that threats and attempts to intimidate politicians are "completely unacceptable."

Johnson was also criticized by Cox's widower, Brendan Cox, who said he felt "a bit sick" at the way her name was being used. He tweeted that "the best way to honor Jo" was "never to demonize the other side."

As Parliament resumed Thursday, Commons Speaker John Bercow said there had been "an atmosphere in the chamber worse than any I've known in my 22 years in the House."

"The culture was toxic," he said, imploring members of Parliament to "treat each other as opponents, not as enemies."

Some Conservatives, however, accused the opposition of stirring up trouble. Pro-Brexit lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith said Johnson's use of the phrase "surrender bill ... is a statement of fact because it would surrender rights to the European Union."

"It doesn't incite anything else except debate," he said.

Wednesday's fiery session of Parliament came a day after Britain's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Johnson's attempt to suspend Parliament for five weeks until Oct. 14 was illegal because it stymied debate over Brexit.

Opposition legislators demanded Johnson apologize and resign for breaking the law. But Johnson showed no sign of contrition and redoubled his attacks on the lawmakers he accused of blocking Brexit.

Many EU leaders and officials mistrust Johnson, a brash champion of Brexit who helped lead the "leave" campaign in the 2016 referendum. His charged language did nothing to improve relations.

Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament's Brexit steering group, said that when Johnson "speaks about 'surrender,' this is about the enemy. This is the kind of war-like language that he keeps using."

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Raf Casert and Lorne Cook in Brussels, and Gregory Katz in London, contributed to this report.

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