Grief, threats and sleep deprivation—we should be worried by what Brexit is putting our MPs through

We may think the things our MPs do are ill-judged, immoral or even deeply harmful. But being decent people is not just something we can suspend at times of crisis

April 03, 2019
Politicians are called "traitors" by one side or another whatever line they take. Photo: PA/Prospect composite
Politicians are called "traitors" by one side or another whatever line they take. Photo: PA/Prospect composite

I’m in Parliament to give evidence to the APPG for Autism inquiry into the Autism Act, and the Chair Dame Cheryl Gillan, is apologising. She is not at her best today, because her husband died just over a week ago. Jack, who had worked part-time for Cheryl as an office manager and researcher, died after a short illness on Saturday March 23.

Cheryl hasn’t stopped working, hasn’t stopped turning up for votes, no compassionate leave. That isn’t right or healthy.

I don’t think I’d agree with Cheryl on much, politically, other than her consistent and vital work on autism. She voted against LGBTQ+ rights, welfare spending and most of the other things I care about, including Brexit. I can and need to work with her on autism, and she’s very pleasant to speak to, but we are unlikely to become best friends.

But I have been bereaved. Sometimes working through the immediate aftermath can help—but this is no normal job.

Cheryl told us about the emails from constituents who on being told of Jack’s death said they were sorry for her loss and then pressed on with how they thought she should vote on Monday.

As with other MPs, the volume of correspondence, particularly angry emails and abuse via social media, has increased since 2016, and not just on the topic of Brexit. The number of threats and offences towards MPs has sharply risen. Some MPs, and female ones in particular, have been advised not to drive their own cars, go running in their local park or leave the Parliamentary estate via their usual routes.

Politicians are struggling to make important decisions while dealing with constant abuse and they and their staff are overwhelmed, sleep deprived and anxious. They are called “traitors” by one group or another, whatever position they take.

Is that really just part of the job? Activists keep telling me it is, and that MPs should expect this if they don’t do what people want.

This week, reporting restrictions have been lifted on the case of Jack Renshaw, the neo-Nazi terrorist who plotted to kill his local MP Rosie Cooper. It is clear from accounts of the case that experts believe Rosie was chosen because she is a Labour MP, a woman, and someone who was thought to have the same views on immigration as her murdered colleague, Jo Cox.

This is not just an idle remark; it is reported that the murder had been planned in detail. Diane Abbott, Anna Soubry, Yvette Cooper and others have also faced credible threats.

Both Remain and Leave marches featured violent and detailed effigies of politicians, including a Remain figure of May with an axe in her head and a man at the Leave march dragging Theresa May and Sadiq Khan with nooses around their necks.

One video, apparently of British soldiers in Kabul, shows an image of Jeremy Corbyn being used for target practice. Many MPs don’t fear losing their jobs; they fear losing their lives.

We need to talk about the impact of all this on the mental health of politicians. Good decisions cannot be made by people who are in crisis themselves. Most recently, Nick Boles appeared clearly distressed when he resigned the Conservative party whip; the same evening, Huw Merriman looked distraught on Newsnight. Paula Sherriff has been told that she’d “be better off dead,” and I genuinely worry about her—she clearly does not feel safe at home and is constantly targeted with what seems to be very little useful response from police, security services and the CPS.

This isn’t about the politics of the individuals being targeted. For those on the left, it can be hard to feel empathy for politicians in a government which has made people’s lives materially worse. I’m not calling for false civility, or to pretend that austerity is okay.

But the same culture that makes abuse and threats “part of the job” for MPs and pushes no compromise positions, also sends death threats to people who start petitions, calls disabled people scroungers, shouts at autistic people while we’re having a meltdown, wants to ban people from using the bathrooms of their gender, doesn’t care if No Deal means the lifesaving medication chronically ill people need arrives on time, screams at retail workers and makes those of us who have high levels of anxiety at the best of times want to hide forever.

Being decent people is not just something we can suspend at times of crisis.

You might not feel sorry for someone whose politics are terrible; that’s understandable. But the degradation of our political discourse affects us all, even when the threats are being hurled at those we deeply dislike ourselves.

As MPs struggle to get through another long week in Parliament, we should be horrified by what we have become—and the decisions that get made as a result.