Conservative MPs are infuriated after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked a far-right conspiracy theory against his political rival Sir Keir Starmer in Parliament.
The prime minister on Monday claimed that the Labour leader, a former director of public prosecutions, had “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can make out.”
Savile, a longtime BBC presenter, was a serial sex offender who died before he was ever prosecuted.
Johnson was speaking during a Commons debate, meaning he is protected by parliamentary privilege.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab later refused to repeat the claim outside the chamber — where he is afforded no such privilege — but defended it as “part of the cut and thrust” of political discussion.
The prime minister’s official spokesman similarly refused to repeat the claim, telling journalists on Tuesday that it was “related to the leader of the opposition and it’s not one for me in that regard.”
He added: “The PM stands by what he said in the House but I don’t have anything to add. In my role as a civil servant it’s not for me to comment.”
The prime minister’s use of the claim — which he was reportedly advised against — has also been attacked by MPs from his own party.
One member of Johnson’s team, who spoke on the basis of anonymity, told Insider they were considering their position.
“I despair and just need to get my head together,” the payrolled MP said.
“I’ve had 150 emails overnight. The total now exceeds those I received for [Dominic] Cummings,” they said, referring to the scandal over the former Downing Street aide’s 260-mile trip from London to Durham at the height of lockdown.
A former minister concurred. “The inbox is filling up again [with messages saying] the PM is despicable and has to go. All individual messages.”
The prime minister has already suffered one resignation, that of Angela Richardson, who announced she was stepping down as Michael Gove’s parliamentary private secretary on Monday.
Although Johnson’s performance at closed-door meetings with MPs seems to have calmed the mood among the Conservative Party, the MP noted that this had not helped smooth things over with the electorate.
“The performance in the chamber is what the public saw,” the Tory added.
Another former minister said: “The Savile line has infuriated sensible colleagues because it was unnecessary and stupid. He should apologise at the start of PMQs. The public hated it.”
He added: “There are a lot of angry and a lot of concerned colleagues. Inboxes are filling up. Our reputation for integrity is being trashed and Tory voters are leaving.”
Another MP told Insider: “I think his statement was poor. The tone was completely wrong.”
But the wider issue, the MP said, was more about whether Johnson was able to make the changes he promised after a report into lockdown-breaching Downing Street parties was partially published.
“There is a definite credibility issue now,” the MP said.
Some have gone public with their concerns.
Julian Smith, a former minister who was sacked in one of Johnson’s reshuffles early on in his premiership, tweeted that the comment was “wrong & cannot be defended,” and called for it to be withdrawn.
On Tuesday morning, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle rebuked the prime minister for his comments about Savile, but stopped short of saying they were out of order.
“I am far from satisfied that the comments in question were appropriate on this occasion,” he said. “I want to see more compassionate, reasonable politics in this house and these sort of comments can only inflame opinions.”
The claim relating to Savile appears to have been first circulated by a group of far-right Facebook users.
Following Johnson’s comments, Starmer told Sky News it was “a ridiculous slur peddled by rightwing trolls”.
“He’d been advised not to do it because it’s obviously not true, but he does it because he doesn’t understand what honesty and integrity mean,” he said.
“Many [Tory MPs] expressed that to me, disgust at their prime minister for debasing himself in the House of Commons instead of acting with the contrition and integrity he should have shown.
Original story on Business Insider