THE Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has joined calls for the Prime Minister to apologise for his “destructive” language in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening.
Writing on his blog on Thursday, Bishop Baines said: “The Prime Minister has a particular and weighty responsibility in our current crisis to lead by example. A fundamental element of strong leadership, rooted in character, is to demonstrate humility. The language he is using is destructive and has caused distress. An apology would be in order.
“More importantly, he needs to lead a recalibration of language, mood and relationship. What we are witnessing currently is the further corruption of our public discourse and the norms of democratic debate.”
Bishop Baines’s diocese covers the Batley constituency, where Jo Cox MP was murdered by a right-wing extremist a few days before the EU referendum in 2016. Ms Cox was invoked in the Commons on Wednesday by Labour MPs concerned that Boris Johnson was stoking hatred of Parliament by his use of language, in particular his reference to the Act that forces him to apply to the EU for an extension if no deal has been forged by 19 October as “the surrender Act” or “the capitulation Act”.
Bishop Baines commented: “The language used in the House of Commons last night is probably unprecedented. Drawing the name of a murdered MP into the fight was, at the very least, questionable. To describe the contribution of female MPs, pleading with the PM to moderate his language in the light of violence and death threats, as ‘humbug’ is appalling.
“I am the Bishop of a diocese in which Jo Cox is remembered with massive affection, and in which there is great sensitivity to utilisation of her for political purposes. Her family are not just names to be traded.
“Words are not neutral — they can become weapons. Words in the mouth of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people, and not always positively.
“The challenge of leadership is to lead, to behave like the adult in the room, to see the big picture, to hold the long-term perspective, and not to lose sight of the key issue.”
A Downing Street spokesman defended the Prime Minister’s conduct in the Commons. He said on Thursday morning that Mr Johnson “obviously made the broader point last night that he believes we need to get the issue of Brexit resolved because it was causing anxiety and ill-feeling in the country”.
He stated: “The PM is very clear that, whatever their views, no MPs or anyone else in public life should face threats or intimidation,” but declined to make any link to Mr Johnson’s language.
This was not the case in the Commons on Thursday morning, where the Speaker, John Bercow, allowed an urgent question about parliamentary conduct “in light of the appalling atmosphere in the chamber yesterday, and the toxicity which it can spawn or exacerbate in the country at large”.
Jess Phillips MP said: “I have had a death threat this week that quoted the Prime Minister and used his name and words.”
She accused Downing Street of having “a clear strategy” over the use of Mr Johnson’s language. “It has clearly been tested, workshopped, worked up, entirely designed to inflame hatred and division.
“I get it, it works, it is working, we are all ambitious. . . but I also have a soul.”
The Liberal Democrat MP Luciana Berger reported that six people had been convicted of harassment and hate crime against her. She wanted Mr Johnson to “reconsider his deliberate strategy of sowing sees of division in our country”.
Responding for the Government, Kevin Foster, Welsh Office Minister, reported that, had Parliament not been recalled, he would have been having a meeting with the police to consider the safety of candidates during another General Election.
He said that blame could be shared around the House: “We can all look at things we have said over years” and realise it was not the right language.