Tory MPs who rebelled over Brexit have rounded on the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph for “inciting” death threats and other abuse against them.
Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Nicky Morgan and Sarah Wollaston all blamed the newspapers directly for the online harassment they have received before and since they defied their party to give Parliament a say over the UK’s final exit deal.
The clutch of backbenchers were dubbed ‘The Brexit Mutineers’ by the Telegraph, while the Mail ran a similar front page of their photos, dubbing them ‘self-consumed malcontents’.
But after an impassioned Commons debate on harassment of MPs on Monday evening, all of the ‘Remainer rebels’ were praised by Commons Speaker John Bercow for voting with their principles.
Bercow, to whom Soubry handed two dossiers of the most threatening messages, hailed the rebels as “dedicated public servants” and “never mutineers, traitors, malcontents nor enemies of the people”.
Despite repeated requests to condemn the two papers, Home Secretary Amber Rudd ducked direct criticism of them or their editors, declaring that the individuals who sent abusive messages were most to blame.
But Rudd added that “everybody should consider very carefully the language that they use so that it does not incite the sort of activity of which we have seen too much”.
Soubry’s dossier reveals that messages included references to “explosives” being deployed in Westminster, and one had a line asking if there was “enough rope to hang them [the rebels] along the Embankment?”
Others described MPs as “scum”, called for deselections and for them to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Another named the late Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right extremist. Yet another message said the “mutineers” had committed treason and their “heads belong on spikes outside”.
Soubry said that the two dossiers of abusive messages she had received showed “quite clearly…a link between a front page of The Daily Telegraph using the word “mutineers” and threats, including death threats, made to me” and other MPs.
“Then last week, with the Daily Mail, again, specifically, you can see the link between words that are used and being called traitors, with comments like ’Traitors get hanged’….this is serious stuff.
“I am an old journalist as well as an old barrister. I believe in freedom of the press, but everybody has a responsibility not to incite abuse and death threats.”
Grieve, who also rebelled over Brexit last week, said he had been shocked by the “vitriolic abuse” he had suffered since the vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill and the fact it was the “new normal” for a large number of MPs.
“While undoubtedly some of it comes from people who may be a little unhinged, the stimulus for it undoubtedly, as has been suggested, comes from some sections of the national media choosing to report the politics of this country in a way that is designed to entertain but also to intimidate.”
Tory MP Sarah Wollaston revealed her own staff had been targeted since the front pages.
“It is a great shame that, after I am targeted as a traitor by organisations such as the Daily Mail, the extent of the abusive calls is unfortunately so great that I have to ask them to work from home,” she said.
Former Labour leader Harriet Harman urged Rudd to “be brave” and “call in” the editors of the Mail and Telegraph.
Harman said there was “a toxic triangle, which is made up of the divisiveness of the Brexit issue, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail identifying certain Members as targets and framing the attack on them and—facilitated by social media—the mob following.
“When MPs in other countries are threatened with violence because of how they vote, we call that tyranny, and we call that fascism, but that is what is happening here.”
Rudd: “The real issue is the attackers, who are potentially launching their hate and abuse. As far as the media are concerned, it covers not just national newspapers but internet companies, commentators and television.”
Earlier, Jeremy Corbyn singled out the Mail’s ‘Proud Of Yourselves?’ front page reaction to last week’s Government defeat as 11 Tories defied their party whip to give MPs a ‘meaningful’ vote on the Brexit deal.
“The Daily Mail, which previously branded members of the judiciary as enemies of the people, is now whipping up hatred against backbench rebel MPs,” the Labour leader said. “Threats and intimidation have no place in our politics.”
Theresa May ducked any criticism of either the Mail or Telegraph, but stressed “there can never be a place for the threats of violence and intimidation against some members that we have seen in recent days”.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott pointed out that 45% of the Twitter abuse in the run-up to the general election was directed at her personally.
Abbott pointed the finger of blame not just at Twitter and Facebook but at national newspapers such as the Mail and Telegraph.
“When politicians get death threats as a result of how they vote in this House, that is not the primary responsibility of social media companies; if anyone is responsible, it is the headline writers who accuse judges of being ‘Enemies of the People’, and elected Members of Parliament of being ‘Mutineers’ and ‘Saboteurs’, when all they are doing is exercising their civil right to cast their vote in the House of Commons.”
Tory MP Antoinette Sandbach, another backbencher singled out by the newspapers, hit back at fellow MP Nadine Dorries for suggesting she and others should face deselection for not following the party line.
“Last week I was subjected to hundreds and hundreds of emails, many of which were abusive.
“The situation was not helped by Members calling for deselections. There is a clear link between abuse and certain parts of particular political parties calling for deselection.”
Rudd replied: “My honourable Friend is an exceptional Member of Parliament. She is always speaking out on behalf of not just our constituents, but what she believes in.
“I absolutely believe, as I think most colleagues in this House do, that she is exactly the sort of Member of Parliament that we should have here. Members such as my hon. Friend enhance our democracy, so she has my entire support.”
The Daily Mail said it supported the Goverment’s attempt to stamp out harassment of MPs, but added that should not be used to stifle legitimate debate on Brexit.