The Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has demanded “an end to hatred” against MPs and a kinder form of political discourse following the fatal stabbing of Sir David Amess, as evidence mounts of the shocking scale of intimidation and threats suffered daily by elected politicians and their staff.
In a highly unusual intervention for a Commons Speaker, Hoyle makes the appeal as he writes in the Observer. He describes the late Tory MP and father of five as a friend who would regularly drop into his office for a chat, and as “a man who found a connection with everyone, no matter their background”.
On Saturday, political leaders put on a defiant show of unity and solidarity, with Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer, along with Hoyle and the home secretary, Priti Patel, together laying wreaths at Belfairs Methodist church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, where Amess died after being stabbed repeatedly as he held his constituency surgery on Friday. A man was arrested shortly after the attack and remains in police custody.
The suspect, named by police sources as Ali Harbi Ali, 25, is said to be a British national of Somali heritage, who is believed to have been referred to the Prevent programme but is not on MI5’s database of persons of interest. Detectives were on Saturday granted a warrant to hold him until 22 October.
Hoyle, who reveals how he decided to hold his own two-hour surgery just four hours after learning of Amess’s killing, says that while the security offered to MPs must now be reviewed, there is a wider problem about the levels of hatred and intimidation in politics that must be addressed.
“If anything positive is to come out of this latest awful tragedy,” he says, “it is that the quality of political discourse has to change. The conversation has to be kinder and based on respect.” With many MPs privately confiding that they face death threats on a regular basis on social media, Hoyle adds: “The hate which drives these attacks has to end. Disagreements with politicians should be solved at the ballot box not via threats, intimidation or murder.”
The Observer understands that the House of Commons Commission, chaired by Hoyle, which deals with security matters relating to MPs, has been informed of hundreds of reports of serious abuse and threats against members – including death threats – over recent months. One senior Westminster source said the numbers of people now in prison or awaiting trial for threatening MPs or abusing them was “staggering”. “It is a British disease,” the source said. “The numbers are horrifying. It is an epidemic.”
Shailesh Vara, the Tory MP for North-West Cambridgeshire and a former minister, said the kind of language used by people when communicating with MPs, either on social media or by other means, was becoming more hostile and aggressive all the time and was affecting MPs’ staff as well as elected representatives.
“To call me the C-word or to refer to politicians like me as bastards and to use unpleasant and aggressive tones is normal for some people these days. What they don’t realise is that it is not just us they are abusing. It is our staff, people who are just trying to do a job, trying to earn enough to put food on the table, pay their mortgage and the bills.
“With the volume of correspondence we get now, we need to have staff. Not so long ago, MPs would get about 20 letters a week, they shared one secretary between them all and an MP could write 20 handwritten letters to those constituents and all was well and good. Now I can get more than 25 emails in less than an hour.”
Jade Botterill, a former assistant to Labour MP Yvette Cooper, said she had left politics because of the abuse directed at her boss, who is a former Cabinet minister. “I would get in and all I would do is go on Facebook and report death threats and delete them,” said Botterill, who worked for Cooper from 2013 to 2019. “I reckon I reported over 1,000 death threats. I couldn’t sleep,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I would have these nightmares that I would be in the office with Yvette and someone would come up to her and kill her.”
The senior Tory MP Charles Walker, who is a member of the Commons Commission, which will meet on Monday to discuss the implications of Amess’s killing, said: “Living in fear has become a routine part of many of my colleagues’ lives. Many have the incredible ability to compartmentalise that part of their existences but it should not have to be that way.”
Some MPs complained they had given up passing on issues to police because threats were often not taken seriously unless someone had been physically threatened.
Harriet Harman, the former Labour deputy leader, is pressing for a cross-party summit with the security services to discuss how to improve security. Some MPs spoke privately of wanting to move or end walk-in constituency surgeries as a result of the risks they and their staff were facing. In 2015-16, the amount spent on MPs’ security was just £171,000. By 2017-18, that had expanded to £4.2m.
On Monday, Commons time will be set aside for tributes to Amess and the former Home Office minister James Brokenshire, who died this month from cancer.
On Saturday there was a mixed response from MPs as to how they would handle surgeries with constituents. While several were defiant and tweeted about conducting them as normal, others said the age in which MPs pre-announced the time and place of their surgeries, which were then open to all comers, had to end.
Former minister Tobias Ellwood called for a pause to in-person meetings until a security review ordered by Patel on Friday had been completed. Ellwood, who chairs the Commons defence committee, tweeted: “MP engagement with the public … is a vital part of our work – our accessibility with the public. But understandable huge anxiety among MPs now. Until the home secretary’s review of MP security is complete I would recommend a temporary pause in face-to-face meetings.”
But former Cabinet minister David Davis disagreed: “Sure, we should be cautious, maybe we should do things to ensure the people who come to see us are bona fide, but I think actually pausing it would be a bad idea. It would be a terrible reflection of what David stood for – David himself was the ultimate constituency MP.”
Labour party sources last night said that the party would not stand a candidate in a Southend West by-election to replace Amess.