Senior Conservatives have demanded that the party remove the whip from anonymous MPs who briefed violent rhetoric to Sunday papers, including one who quipped that Theresa May should “bring her own noose” to her next backbenchers’ meeting.
The comments drew condemnation from across the political spectrum, including Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer and Jacob Rees-Mogg. During a statement by the prime minister in the Commons, May called for more care to be taken with the language used, even during heated debate.
“It is incumbent on all of us in public life to be careful about the language we use,” she said on Monday. “There are passionate beliefs on this subject … but whatever the subject, we should all be careful about our language.”
Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister who has become one of the prime minister’s fiercest public critics, called for Tory whips to seek out who had made the anonymous remarks.
He said colleagues using language about nooses and knives have “throughly disgraced” themselves. “I very much hope they are discovered and I hope she will withdraw the whip from them,” he said.
The Sunday Times quoted one unnamed Tory MP as saying: “The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.”
Another said May was now entering “the killing zone”, and a third remarked: “Assassination is in the air.” In the Mail on Sunday, a source was quoted as saying that May should “bring her own noose” to a meeting of backbench Tories.
The former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said that whoever briefed in violent terms about May’s future “needs to have the fullest weight of the Conservative party upon them”.
Speaking in Brussels, Duncan Smith said: “It has nothing to do with our politics, it has nothing to do with this issue.”
Responding to May in the Commons, Corbyn said he hoped the debate could be conducted without similar language. Starmer called the briefings “nothing short of disgraceful” and said MPs should know better. “This kind of language has no place in our politics.”
Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said he agreed on “the need for serious, substantive debate, with the right tone.”
Yvette Cooper, chair of the House of Commons home affairs select committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that such language was unacceptable, particularly after the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016.
“Nobody should be subject to that kind of violent language, which I think is normalising violence in public debate at a time when we lost Jo Cox, we have had threats against Rosie Cooper, we have had other violent death threats against women MPs,” she said.
A No 10 spokesman said that there would be “no investigation” by the whips into which MPs had briefed Sunday newspapers.
“I don’t intend to dignify those specific anonymous comments with a response,” the spokesman said. “Personal vitriol has no place in our politics.”
One Tory MP and public critic of May, Mark Francois, said the language was “unacceptable” but added that that he would not tell the Conservative chief whip, how to do his job.
He said the language was born of frustration: “The problem is that there is a lot of frustration on the backbenches at the moment, both among leavers and remainers, at the general state of play. When you try to convey that to No 10, no one is listening.”
His failure to completely condemn the language later prompted criticism from two pro-remain Tory MPs.
“Mark Francois does not speak for me or vast numbers of moderate Conservative MPs,” tweeted Antoinette Sandbach. “We are fed up of seeing the ERG [European Research Group] bullying and undermining the PM because of their so called ‘vision’ of Brexit.”
Former business minister Anna Soubry tweeted: “I am appalled that my colleague Mark Francois failed unequivocally to condemn the disgraceful and dangerous language used by a fellow Conservative MP against the PM.” She called it “shameful”.
Andrew Bridgen, another of May’s critics on the backbenches, told Good Morning Britain the language was unhelpful. “It won’t persuade colleagues to back a change of leadership. It’s actually going to be counterproductive at this point,” he said.