Tory outrage over scumgate might be hypocritical, but it's time to take verbal abuse seriously

Tory outrage over scumgate might be hypocritical, but it's time to take verbal abuse seriously

Catherine Neilan

16:16 24th October 2020

This week in Parliament it felt, to coin a phrase, as though nothing had changed.

While giving a speech about the recent tense negotiations over putting Greater Manchester into the highest tier of restrictions, Conservative MP Chris Clarkson accused Labour MPs of "opportunism".

He had already attacked the region's mayor Andy Burnham of "carefully confected outrage" and insinuated that members of the shadow front bench believed the pandemic was a "good crisis" to exploit when something barely audible stopped him in his tracks.

"Excuse me, did the hon. member for Ashton-under-Lyne just call me scum?" he asked, with almost comedic indignation.

A visibly shocked deputy speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing, called for order, saying: "From the front bench we do not have remarks like that. Not under any circumstances, no matter how heartfelt it might be. Not at all."

Angela Rayner, who had already branded the government's financial support package for the region "an insult" as she told the Commons her aunt died from coronavirus last week, did not immediately apologise. Instead she called on Clarkson to withdraw his "inaccurate comments".

Although Rayner later issued a statement apologising, the response from the Tories was damning.

Conservative MP Katherine Fletcher, said she had "shamed Manchester". The next day, fellow Tory Shaun Bailey suggested members of the public had copied her behaviour, telling the Commons that his mother had been abused with that "type of wording" simply "because she was my mother."

But perhaps Fletcher, Bailey and Clarkson weren't paying attention to the Commons last year, when even worse verbal abuse was being thrown around the chamber.

Prior to all three being elected in December, the tension in parliament was palpable. Theresa May had been forced out of Number 10 after three failed attempts to pass a meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. Boris Johnson had swept in as leader, cleared out anyone who had not been fully behind him and created a new Cabinet built more on loyalty than experience or skill.

He went on making enemies, most notably sacking 21 Conservative MPs for supporting the Benn Act, what Number 10 repeatedly and insistently dubbed the "Surrender Act". Among the people he sacked were some of the party's biggest beats including Ken Clarke, David Gauke, Nicolas Soames, Dominic Grieve and Philip Hammond.

The sacking was unexpected but it was the language that really made the place feel febrile.

Tory MPs took their cue from Downing Street, blasting those who voted for "the humiliation act, the capitulation act or the surrender act", But these words had a real effect on the rest of the country, who was watching in hope of some resolution to the drama of SW1A.

Several MPs - particularly female ones, and often Tory Remainers - received death threats at that time. Some were serious enough to warrant police action, but many simply grit their teeth and hoped for the best.

Caroline Nokes, another of the 21 who had the whip removed, asked how she should respond to a constituent who "told me I was a traitor who deserved to be shot, when the language of "traitor" is heard in this House?"

Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, said: "When the trolls are in Parliament, how do we stop feeding the trolls?"

But it was her Labour colleague Paula Sherriff's impassioned plea to the prime minister to moderate his language - and the response she received - that lingers most in my memory of last autumn.

It was not just language that people feared. Leading into the election of that year people were on edge, afraid that we would see another MP attacked and killed as Jo Cox had been a week before the Brexit referendum.

There was no change of approach during the election campaign. But with Boris Johnson's 80-seat majority came a certain degree of relief, regardless of how you viewed the election result itself. The toxic language was no longer needed.

The Prime Minister Got Brexit Done (kind of) and then, as the pandemic arrived, those playground tactics were mostly dropped as the need for real work took over.

However this week, as tensions rose again, so too did the rhetoric.

One Labour MP compared the "coercive power" of the Government forcing Greater Manchester into tier three without a deal agreed to the Peterloo Massacre, while another said the North had been left to engage in "our own version of The Hunger Games".

The reaction to Rayner calling Clarkson scum was fairly swift. As well as Bailey's mum receiving abusive phone calls, Tory MPs' offices were targeted by protesters disgusted by the Government's stance on free school meals. The phrase Tory scum was everywhere.

That in turn led the Conservatives to sign an open letter promoted by Amanda Milling MP urging the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, to take action against all party members who perpetrate "unacceptable abuse online and offline".

This letter reeks of hypocrisy given the Tories' recent history of unparliamentary language which had much more serious consequences.

Unlike some of her colleagues, the reformed Remainer Amanda Milling was an MP during the Brexit wars and saw up close the death threats her colleagues received.

But regardless of who started it, the casual verbal abuse in parliament has got to stop, if we are to have any hope of reviving civil dialogue in the wider society, and finally ensuring that something does change.

Subscribe to receive regular email updates:     

Tags: Open dialogue Brexit Coronavirus Death threats