Language used by Boris Johnson to describe MPs seeking to block a no-deal Brexit could endanger politicians and their staff, a Tory former minister has said amid cross-party condemnation of the prime minister’s comments.
Speaking live on Facebook, where he answered pre-selected questions from the public in an event billed as a “people’s prime minister’s questions”, Johnson argued that efforts to block no deal would increase its likelihood as it would make the EU less keen to offer new concessions.
“There’s a terrible collaboration, as it were, going on between people who think they can block Brexit in parliament and our European friends,” Johnson said.
“And our European friends are not moving in their willingness to compromise, they’re not compromising at all on the withdrawal agreement even though it’s been thrown out three times, they’re sticking to every letter, every comma of the withdrawal agreement – including the backstop – because they still think Brexit can be blocked in parliament.
“The awful thing is the longer that goes on, the more likely it is of course that we will be forced to leave with a no-deal Brexit.”
Guto Bebb, a Conservative MP and former junior minister, said the comments were “absolutely disgraceful”. And the use of the word collaboration was “toxic” and reminiscent of the rhetoric surrounding the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox.
“I knew Jo Cox, and I think Boris Johnson should reflect very carefully on the fact he is using language about us collaborating with the EU when he knows full well the threats people are facing,” Bebb said.
“My office staff are not able to do their work without security. My family home has had a security system put in place. And for Boris Johnson to accuse people like myself of collaboration is disgraceful language from a man who should know better. It is unworthy of the position he holds and it proves again the man is not fit to be prime minister.”
The former Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has previously received death threats, said Johnson and his advisers would have decided on the language in advance.
“It is dangerous, deeply offensive to many, and it fans the flames of division,” the independent MP tweeted.
Jacqui Smith, the former Labour home secretary who chairs the foundation set up in Cox’s name, said: “Our prime minister is very well educated and has an interest in history. He totally understands the resonance of using the word ‘collaboration’. Language matters. Please be better.”
Johnson made the comments during a live-streamed session lasting just under 12 minutes in which he refused to rule out shutting down parliament and holding a general election after leaving the EU on 31 October.
The hostile language from Johnson follows an equally robust anonymous briefing against Philip Hammond after he warned against the apparent likelihood of no deal, with No 10 sources accusing the former chancellor of wanting to frustrate Brexit.
The Labour MP Stephen Doughty said Johnson was using “the shameful language of fascism and authoritarianism”.
“Our European neighbours are friends not an enemy to ‘collaborate’ with,” he said.
Stephen Gethins, the Scottish National party’s Europe spokesperson, said Johnson was “dangerously deluded and detached from reality in his rhetoric over the UK’s exit from the EU and his ‘do or die’ plan to crash out without a deal”.
A Downing Street source said Johnson had simply been “trying to make a clear point that the EU is looking at what is happening here and getting the entirely wrong message that parliament is somehow going to block Brexit on 31 October”.
During the live stream, Johnson reiterated his argument that the government “does not seek no deal, but we need our European friends to compromise”. He added: “The more they think there’s a chance that Brexit can be blocked in parliament, the more adamant they are in sticking to their position.”
In reality, it is Johnson who is refusing to negotiate a deal with the EU unless the 27 member states agree publicly to ditch what he calls the “undemocratic backstop” and provide a new agreement.
Brussels has said the backstop is an essential component of a deal because it prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland, but critics say it could trap the UK indefinitely in a customs union.
Speaking during the live stream, Johnson read out a question asking whether he would plan to hold an election in the days after the scheduled Brexit date of 31 October, and declined to rule that out.
“I think the British public have had a lot of elections and electoral events,” he said. “There was the election in 2015, the referendum in 2016, another election in 2017. I think what they want us to do is get on and deliver Brexit on 31 October. I never tire of telling you that’s what we’re going to do.”
He claimed to be subjecting himself to a grilling from the public “unpasteurised, unmediated” from his desk in Downing Street, but he was able to choose the questions he answered, including relatively soft ones about what he would do to protect the union and about knife crime, which allowed him to talk about his time as mayor of London.