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LONDON — Even by the febrile standards of British politics at the moment, Wednesday night reached new levels of division and turmoil.
The House of Commons — one of the most venerated democratic institutions in the world — descended into an atmosphere of vitriol and disbelief, as enemies and allies alike condemned language used by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he continues in his quest to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by Oct. 31.
During his brief leadership, Johnson has used words such as "surrender" and "betrayal" when referring to lawmakers who disagree with his hard-line vision for Brexit. Johnson promises to take the country out of the E.U. without a divorce deal if necessary, which would risk economic stability.
On Wednesday night this confrontational tone boiled over, with Johnson using the words "surrender act" 15 times — a reference to Brexit-softening legislation passed by his opponents, designed to prevent a "no-deal" scenario.
Politicians across the house condemned this language, which casts members of Parliament as enemies of the people and echoing the countless death-threats they have received as the Brexit debate has intensified.
The heated debate came as:
- The prime minister continues to be frustrated in his calls for a general election — two thirds of MPs need to agree to one before it can happen.
- The U.K. is still due to automatically leave the E.U. on Oct. 31, but lawmakers have passed a bill obliging Johnson to ask for a three-month extension from Brussels. It's unclear whether he will.
- Johnson prepares to travel to Brussels for a make-or-break E.U. summit on Oct. 17, where he hopes to seal a Brexit divorce agreement.
"There was an atmosphere in the chamber worse than any I've known than my 22 years in the House," John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, said early Thursday, declining to single out the prime minister specifically. "On both sides passions were inflamed, angry words were uttered, the culture was toxic."
In one of the angriest exchanges, opposition Labour Party lawmaker Paula Sherriff shouted at Johnson across the House of Commons, telling him that "he should be absolutely ashamed of himself."
She said: "We're subject to death threats and abuse every single day. And let me tell the prime minister that they often quote his words: 'surrender act,' 'betrayal,' 'traitor.'"
In calling for more moderate language Sherriff raised the death of Labour Party lawmaker Jo Cox a few days before the 2016 E.U. referendum. She was murdered in the street by a Nazi-supporting terrorist who shouted "Britain first" during the killing and called Cox a "traitor" during the subsequent trial.
Johnson responded, "I have to say, Mr Speaker, I've never heard such humbug in all my life."
Another Labour lawmaker, Jess Phillips, shared a death threat she had received that quoted a comment by Johnson, in which the prime minister said he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than fail to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31.
"I'm not scared of an election. I am scared I might be hurt or killed," she said in another post. Phillips revealed last year that she had received some 600 threats of rape in the space of 12 months.
In October 2017, police foiled a plot from a neo-Nazi group to kill another Labour lawmaker, Rosie Cooper, with a replica Roman sword.
However, some political analysts believe Johnson's rhetoric is a deliberate attempt to position himself as a populist defender of "the people" against an elitist Parliament trying to betray them over Brexit, as the country heads toward a likely general election.
Labour Party M.P. Lisa Nandy told the House of Commons on Thursday: "We can see what the prime minister was doing with that horrendous, divisive language. We can see that this is a clear electoral strategy to whip up hate and to try to divide us, and to whip up the hate of people against Parliament."
Earlier this month Johnson caused an uproar by suspending Parliament for five weeks, something his opponents decried as a cynical attempt to block them from scrutinizing his Brexit plans.
On Tuesday the U.K.'s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this suspension was unlawful, a humiliating defeat for Johnson that meant that Parliament's suspension was instantly reversed.
The prime minister cut short his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, rushing back on a red-eye to London.
The atmosphere around Brexit has become so heated that in April this year police warned politicians to tone down their language or risk inciting violence.
The condemnation of Johnson's words did not just come from his opposition parties.
Nicky Morgan, a member of Johnson's own Cabinet, tweeted: "At a time of strong feelings we all need to remind ourselves of the effect of everything we say on those watching us."
Julian King, a senior member of the civil service, described the prime minister's language as "crass and dangerous." He posted to Twitter: "If you think extreme language doesn't fuel political violence across Europe, including the U.K., then you’re not paying attention."
Later Thursday, Parliament rejected a request by Johnson's government to adjourn next week while his ruling Conservative Party holds its annual conference.
By 306 votes to 289, lawmakers handed Johnson his seventh consecutive parliamentary defeat.