Attack on UK opposition leader Keir Starmer draws warning from widower of MP Jo Cox

The Labour party chief was whisked into a police car after being surrounded by angry protesters

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The husband of murdered British MP Jo Cox has given a warning that “poison in politics has consequences” after a crowd of protesters accosted Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in Westminster.

Brendan Cox said ill-chosen comments had the potential to lead to “intimidation, violence and extremism” towards politicians.

On Monday Mr Starmer had to be escorted by police as he walked near Parliament while angry protesters shouted at him. At least one man was heard accusing him of “protecting paedophiles”. Officers whisked him into a police car and removed him from the scene.

The incident occurred only a week after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Mr Starmer had "spent most of his time [as Director of Public Prosecutions] prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile". Mr Johnson was condemned for his slur and urged by politicians across the political spectrum to apologise.

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 22, 2016 file photo, Brendan Cox, widower of murdered British MP Jo Cox makes a speech during a gathering to celebrate her life, in Trafalgar Square, London. The widower of a slain British legislator stepped down from two charities on Saturday Feb. 18, 2018, set up in her memory after allegations of sexual misconduct in the past were reported. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

While Mr Starmer was unhurt in Monday’s incident, Mr Cox said there would be more serious consequences if inflammatory language was used freely and openly in politics.

In June 2016, only days before the EU referendum, his wife was shot and stabbed to death by a far-right terrorist.

He said if the incident was a one-off “we could be more sanguine about it” but over the last few years there has been an increase in aggression directed at MPs from across the political spectrum.

“I think that it’s very hard to draw a direct link and to say that in some ways, the prime minister is directly responsible for what happened,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I think the people that are directly responsible for what happened yesterday were the people that did it.

“However, it’s also true that if you inject poison into politics, that has a whole set of unintended consequences that people will react to in different ways and at times that can lead over into intimidation, it can lead over to violence, it can lead over into extremism.”

Kim Leadbeater, the sister of the late Mrs Cox, said she was “incredibly angry” about the mob's actions against Mr Starmer. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy walked alongside Mr Starmer and was also uninjured in the incident.

In a pointed message to Mr Johnson, she said “words have consequences, leaders have a duty to behave responsibly”.

Ms Leadbeater, who is a Labour MP representing her late sister’s former constituency, said she felt “incredibly angry and upset by the scenes we saw yesterday.”

She said “these things don’t just happen” and added: “Words have consequences, leaders have a duty to behave responsibly & politics is not a game. Our country deserves far better.”

Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan said Mr Johnson “shouldn’t be looking in the dark corners of the internet for lies to smear his opponents but standing up for a better public discourse based on fact not fiction.”

She urged Mr Johnson to issue an apology in Parliament, warning “words have consequences, and without a doubt we need to have more responsible leaders who fight fake news and conspiracy theories, not promote them.”

She said the prime minister is prepared to “smear any person or group who stands in his way and benefit only himself”.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is straight out of the Trumpian playbook and most of us have come into public life to help change lives.

“But Boris Johnson has come into public office to seize power.

“There’s no barrel that he won’t scrape.”

Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chairman of the Commons defence select committee added to the calls for the prime minister to apologise for his ill-chosen remarks.

Mr Ellwood gave a warning that the rhetoric the prime minister used risks leading the UK “towards a Trumpian style of politics”.

“PM - Apologise please,” he tweeted. “We claim to be the Mother of all Parliaments. Let’s stop this drift towards a Trumpian style of politics from becoming the norm. We are better than this.”

Earlier, his fellow Tory MP Julian Smith had urged Mr Johnson to withdraw his remarks.

“What happened to Keir Starmer tonight outside parliament is appalling,” Mr Smith tweeted. “It is really important for our democracy and for his security that the false Savile slurs made against him are withdrawn in full.”

Last week Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, the second most powerful man in British politics, refused to back Mr Johnson on the issue, admitting he would not have used the words.

However, several ministers have come out in support of the prime minister and said he had no reason to apologise.

Technology Minister Chris Philp said Mr Johnson had “clarified” the comments which ruffled feathers.

“The first comments in the House on the previous Monday were capable of being misconstrued and that is why it is important and right that a couple of days later that Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, did clarify that he was not suggesting at any time that Keir Starmer had personal responsibility for the case,” Mr Philp told BBC Breakfast. “But he obviously did have responsibility for the conduct of the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service].

“I don’t think there is any way you can reasonably suggest that the comments on Keir Starmer’s overall responsibility for the CPS in any way provoked the very unseemly and totally unacceptable harassment we saw last night.”

Updated: February 08, 2022, 10:50 AM