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Death threats were a factor in my resignation, says Spelman

12 September 2019

MP quits over no-deal Brexit as Government is forced to publish emergency details


Dame Caroline Spelman speaks to the media before attending a cabinet meeting in February

Dame Caroline Spelman speaks to the media before attending a cabinet meeting in February

THE Second Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP, says that death threats were a factor in her decision to step down as an MP.

Both parliamentarians and journalists must take responsibility for “inflammatory” language, including calling MPs “traitors”, which acted as a “lightning conductor” for abuse, she said on Tuesday.

First elected in 1997, Dame Caroline, a former Conservative Party Chair, rebelled against the Conservative Party whip last week, when she voted in favour of delaying the Brexit deadline of 31 October to avoid the UK’s crashing out without a deal (News, 6 September).

The whip was not withdrawn from her, but, on Thursday of last week, she announced that she would step down at the next General Election.

Her decision means that she will no longer be the Second Commissioner after the next election. She became the first woman to hold the post, which involves speaking for the Church of England in the House of Commons, in 2015. She has held office under three Prime Ministers.

Since January, Dame Caroline has consistently called for a no-deal Brexit to be ruled out (News, 25 January). On Tuesday, she said that it was her “dearest wish” that MPs unite behind a Withdrawal Agreement.

Her comments were made hours after the Queen prorogued Parliament until 14 October at the request of the Prime Minister. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, MPs shouted “shame on you” at Conservative MPs leaving the chamber, and brandished signs reading “Silenced”. Some tried to block the Speaker of the House from leaving, while Welsh MPs sang the hymn “Calon Lân”.

On Wednesday, judges in the Court of Sessions in Scotland ruled that the suspension was unlawful, arguing that the Prime Minister was motivated by the “improper purpose of stymying Parliament”. The challenge was led by Joanna Cherry QC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West. The UK Government has said that it will appeal to the Supreme Court in London.

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, said on Wednesday that there was now “despair among the electorate”, who were asking: “Is this ever going to be sorted out?”

Having argued in the wake of the 2016 referendum that there was a need for cross-party talks, he was now asking “why people cannot sit down and talk together about seeing whether they can reach some sort of agreement or accord”.

Archbishop Davies had trained as a lawyer, and was reminded of divorce proceedings: “You have to have proper agreement. The idea that we might just leave with no agreement doesn’t seem to me to chime in with common sense.”

reuters“God loves . . . Leavers & Remainers” declares a sign outside Highgate United Reformed Church, in north London, on Tuesday

There was “a huge amount of anxiety” in Wales, not least in rural, agricultural communities “about what is going to happen if we crash out without a deal”.

On Monday, MPs voted against the Prime Minister’s call for a General Election next month, insisting that a law blocking a no-deal Brexit must first be in place. On the same day, Royal Assent was secured for legislation (the “Benn Bill” — named after the Labour MP Hilary Benn) that compels the Prime Minister to request an extension on Brexit until 31 January 2020 unless MPs vote either in favour of a deal, or for a no-deal exit, by 19 October.

On Thursday of last week, Mr Johnson said that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit.

“We will not allow the emphatic verdict of the referendum to be slowly suffocated by further calculated drift and paralysis,” he told MPs on Monday. “While the Opposition run from their duty to answer to those who put us here, they cannot hide forever.” Voters would see that “it was this government that was on their side”.

Parliamentarians have expressed doubt about Mr Johson’s insistence that he is continuing to pursue a deal. In her resignation letter on Saturday, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, said that the Government was “expending a lot of energy to prepare for ‘no deal’ but I have not seen the same level of intensity go into our talks with the European Union”.

On Tuesday, Dame Caroline, who voted three times in favour of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, said that it had been “unfairly dismissed too quickly as an acceptable basis on which a new relationship with our neighbours could be built.” It was her “dearest wish” that enough MPs, from all parties, could unite behind a deal.

Her constituency — Meriden — voted 59 per cent in favour of Leave in the 2016 referendum. “It has been difficult with the stand I have taken,” she said. “I have accepted that we need to honour the result of the referendum. . . But it matters greatly how we leave to the future of my constituents’ lives and livelihoods.”

Last week, she told Bloomberg about a large council estate in the constituency: “All the single mums there owe their jobs to the car factory. I can’t be pro-no-deal when I’ve seen the predictions about what will happen to jobs. I can’t ignore it.”

She also revealed last week that she had taken to wearing a personal alarm with a panic button around her neck after receiving death threats. The level of abuse faced by MPs now was “unprecedented” she said on Tuesday. “I think that social media has been quite corrosive. People can say things which, if they wrote it or said it to your face, are not legal. . .

“It is not acceptable that people in public life and their staff should have to cope with this level of abuse that makes them afraid to out and do their job.”

Politicians and journalists should take a “vow of responsibility for the language they use”, she said. “There is no question that highly emotive words like ‘traitor’ or ‘collaborator’ used about MPs act as a lighting conductor for this abuse, and people think it gives them permission to make these threats.”

She praised bishops in the House of Lords for speaking out on the way in which Brexit had “sown rancour in our society, resulting in deep divisions surfacing”.

PAFour former prime ministers — Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Sir John Major — at a service of thanksgiving for the life of Lord Ashdown, which was held in Westminster Abbey on Tuesday

During the House of Lords debate on the Benn Bill last week, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said: “We have to get away from this binary thinking about Leave or Remain. They were terms that pertained to the referendum in 2016 where the question was ‘what’. Where we have got stuck is on the question of ‘how’. . .

“I deeply resent the constant insinuation that if you voted Remain then you remain a Remainer and anything you do has to be suspected as being a plot to ensure that we remain. Many people in this House who voted Remain have gone on to say that the referendum result was to leave, and we have to move on to the question of how to do that, but with the responsibility to look to the interests of our country.”

As parliamentarians prepare for the party-conference season, there are signs of a hardening of positions on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats have indicated that they will campaign in a General Election to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU, without a second referendum.

On Monday, the Speaker in the House of Commons, John Bercow, announced that he would step down on 31 October. Among the MPs contending to replace him is the Labour MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, a former Anglican priest.

Mr Bercow told the House: “Throughout my time as Speaker, I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature, for which I will make absolutely no apology to anyone, anywhere, at any time. To deploy a perhaps dangerous phrase, I have also sought to be the Back Benchers’ backstop.”

He paid an emotional tribute to his Chaplain, Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin: “There has not been a single day when I have not felt delighted and reinforced in my insistence — and it was my insistence — that Rose should be appointed to that role.”

Recalling a “stupid, dim-witted, atavistic, racist, and rancid opposition” to her appointment, he concluded: “I was right, they were wrong: the House loves her.”

Tributes have also been paid to Dame Caroline. The Archbishop of Canterbury described her as an “extraordinary public servant.

“In following Jesus’ example of servant leadership, she has shown integrity, wisdom and humility,” he said. “In her role as Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline’s advice and support have been unfailing and invaluable, her political courage and determination outstanding.”

Richard Chapman, head of parliamentary affairs at Church House, said on Tuesday that she had been “an absolute joy to work with . . . Her advice and her guidance has been crucial, really invaluable.” She commanded respect not only within her own party, but across the House, he said.

Mr Chapman agreed that there had been an escalation in abuse endured by MPs and staff. “We are all in society going to suffer if our politicians don’t feel that they can work freely in Parliament without intimidation and sometimes threats of violence.”

Dame Caroline said that the office of the Second Church Estates Commissioner had combined “two great passions in my life”: politics and faith. Highlights of her tenure had included “not being afraid to speak of God and Jesus on the floor of the House of Commons”, and being able to draw attention to the persecution of Christians, an issue on which there had been a “breakthrough” at the Foreign Office under Jeremy Hunt (News, 8 July).

The Church had been “fortunate” that a succession of Prime Ministers had been “sympathetic” to it, she said.

She has agreed to serve on the steering committee of the Citizens’ Forum, to be chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury (News, 30 August).

“I hope that it can address the divisions in our country between younger and older generations, between rural and urban communities, between the North and the South — things that go beyond Brexit, deeper than Brexit, but are really there and need to be talked about in a respectful way, so we can reunite our country and move forward in a positive way,” she said.

“The Church has an amazing position in our society, where it could actually take this healing process forward.”

On Wednesday, the Government published its “Operation Yellowhammer” document, entitled “Reasonable Worst Case Planning Assumptions” should the UK leave the EU without a deal on 31 October. It was leaked last month to the Sunday Times, which reported that it “set out the most likely aftershocks of a no-deal Brexit rather than worst-case scenarios”.

Among the scenarios listed are disruption to the flow of goods across the Channel. It notes that three-quarters of medicines enter via the short straits and that these are “particularly vulnerable to severe extended delays”. Other points listed are a “significant” increase in the price of electricity and a decrease in some fresh produce with a risk of “panic buying”. Low income groups would be worst affected, it says. A section on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland sets out the potential for a severe disruption of trade, with the agriculture sector particularly affected, and for a growth in the black market for goods.

The document notes a “mixed picture” in terms of the rights that may be afforded to UK citizens living in EU member states and also warns of the potential for protests and counter-protests in the UK.

Read more on the story from Paul Vallely, in our leader comment, and on our letters pages

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