London (AFP) – As a crucial Brexit battle comes to a head in the British parliament on Wednesday, MPs are weighing not just their own views but also their personal safety amid increasingly toxic public debate.
Pro-EU lawmakers challenging the government’s Brexit strategy have received repeated death threats, and at least one MP recently decided not to rebel on a bill for fear of reprisals.
One member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party is under such threat that they had to be accompanied by six armed undercover police officers at a public engagement, according to colleague Anna Soubry.
A leader of the pro-EU Conservative faction, Soubry has faced numerous death threats and on Monday had to call in police to investigate a new one.
However, she said the intimidation only strengthened her resolve to vote against the government on Wednesday, when MPs vote on plans in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to give parliament a greater say in the final Brexit deal.
“Death threats becoming routine & making many of us more resolute #StandingFirm #MeaningfulVote,” Soubry tweeted on the eve of the vote.
During a debate on the same bill last week, Soubry revealed that she knew of at least one MP who declined to vote as they wanted “because of threats to their personal safety”.Three people have been convicted over the abuse against Soubry, one of whom was jailed for eight weeks.
All three referenced Jo Cox, an opposition Labour MP who was shot dead by a neo-Nazi sympathiser just days before the June 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
One of them, a 72-year-old retired engineer, admitted sending racist and threatening emails to a total of six MPs, which included accusations of “treachery” over Brexit.
– ‘Can’t do our job’ –
Online abuse is sadly a fact of life for MPs: Labour MP Jess Phillips, an outspoken feminist, recently reported how she received 600 rape threats in one night.
Real-life threats are also too common. Last week, a 23-year-old neo-Nazi admitted in court to planning to assassinate Labour MP Rosie Cooper.
But the 2016 EU referendum was particularly divisive and tensions continue to flare up around key events, notably votes in parliament.
Victims of abuse have laid some of the blame at Britain’s rightwing newspapers, which have dubbed anyone challenging the Brexit process “Enemies of the People” or “Mutineers”.
Last week, pro-EU Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna highlighted a Daily Express headline warning MPs to “ignore the will of the people at your peril”.
“This is a threat, pure and simple,” he said.
The government has condemned the threats or intimidation, but many of its supporters in parliament use inflammatory language, accusing rebels of trying to “sabotage” Brexit.
Conservative rebel Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general who has faced his own death threats, said the “hysteria” around Brexit legislation must end.
“Parliament can’t do its job if every time we have issues of detail over what goes in or out of a bill, it is turned into a constitutional crisis and accusations of treason are levelled at anyone who disagrees with the government’s approach,” he told Sky News television on Tuesday.