LONDON — British lawmakers from Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party are demanding that he apologize and withdraw false claims about the leader of the opposition Labour Party, which appeared to stir up protesters who mobbed his political rival Monday night.
Demonstrators protesting coronavirus vaccines had gathered near the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday and were seen in online videos surrounding and jostling Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the street. Some shouted “traitor” and accusations of “protecting pedophiles.” British media reported that one protester carried a noose as Starmer was hurriedly escorted into a police car in scenes that ignited anger among lawmakers from all sides.
Last week, Johnson made a jibe in Parliament in which he accused Starmer of failing to prosecute a prominent British television personality, Jimmy Savile, who gained renown in the 1960s but was later revealed to be one of the country’s most notorious child abusers. In 2009, prosecutors had decided against prosecuting Savile because of insufficient evidence. Starmer worked as a lawyer leading public prosecutions at the time but was not involved in the decision not to prosecute Savile. Johnson’s claim was widely debunked by British officials and media, while Starmer accused Johnson of “parroting the conspiracy theories of violent fascists.”
Johnson clarified his remarks about Starmer on Feb. 3, saying he had not meant to imply that the opposition leader had personally failed to prosecute sex offender Savile. Despite this, the smear prompted senior cabinet ministers, among them Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, to distance themselves from Johnson’s remarks. Johnson’s longtime political aide Munira Mirza also quit over the Savile comments, calling them a “scurrilous accusation” in her resignation letter.
Many in Britain found Monday’s scenes particularly unsettling, given a number of high-profile attacks on politicians in recent years. Last year, British lawmaker David Amess was stabbed to death at a public meeting; another lawmaker, Jo Cox, was murdered in the street in 2016 by a white supremacist amid the Brexit referendum debate. Multiple female and minority lawmakers have also detailed online abuse and fears for their personal safety.
Since Monday’s incident, Conservative lawmakers have lined up to reprimand their leader.
“PM – Apologise please. … Let’s stop this drift towards a Trumpian style of politics from becoming the norm. We are better than this,” tweeted Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood.
Another, Julian Smith, wrote: “What happened to Keir Starmer tonight outside parliament is appalling. It is really important for our democracy & for his security that the false Savile slurs made against him are withdrawn in full.”
Labour lawmaker Kim Leadbeater, the sister of Jo Cox, said she was “incredibly angry” over the scenes. “These things don’t just happen. Words have consequences,” Leadbeater tweeted. “Leaders have a duty to behave responsibly & politics is not a game.”
Another Labour lawmaker, Chris Bryant, said: “This is what happens when a prime minister descends into the gutter and recycles lies from hard-right conspiracy theorists. Political poison has an effect.”
Johnson has not apologized for the remarks but tweeted Monday evening that the protesters’ behavior toward Starmer was “absolutely disgraceful.” He said “all forms of harassment of our elected representatives are completely unacceptable,” adding: “I thank the police for responding swiftly.”
The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. However, Johnson’s supporters have said there is no clear link between his comments and the angry protesters. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told the BBC that although the Savile remarks could not be substantiated, they were simply a part of politics.
This is not the first time Johnson’s comments have caused ire.
In 2018, when he was a backbench lawmaker and columnist, he compared Muslim women who wear face veils to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” He later gave a qualified apology, stating that “in journalism you need to use language freely.” He previously also made a comment about people from Africa having “watermelon smiles,” a remark he said was taken out of context, and as mayor of London he caused offense by referring to President Barack Obama as “part-Kenyan” with an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”
An investigation conducted by senior civil servant Sue Gray last month determined there were “failures of leadership and judgment” and found that some of the gatherings did not observe the standards expected of government officials. A separate criminal investigation is ongoing by London’s Metropolitan Police. This week, Johnson has announced new backroom staff and personnel changes in a bid to reboot his office.