For all that his critics may often deplore Boris Johnson’s choice of language, it seems to me that he generally chooses his words quite carefully – by which, I mean not that he couches his meaning in soft phrases designed to avoid offence, but that he chooses the words that most accurately describe his beliefs, and to hell with what his critics think of them.
So when he refers to the Benn Act, forcing him to go to the EU and ask for yet another extension to Brexit, as the “Surrender Act”, he is simply stating what he, and I would imagine most of his Brexiteer supporters, think of the Act. It absolutely is an act of surrender, to go to the EU and plead with them to grant us yet another extension. Similarly, his use of the word “traitors” to describe those who have been doing backroom deals with the EU to try to keep us in, and those who have used every judicial means at their disposal, to betray the referendum vote of 17.4 million people, is entirely accurate – to use any other word would be to misrepresent the reality of those people’s behaviour.
What better word, then, than “humbug” could he have chosen to respond to Labour MP Paula Sherriff’s plea that he moderate his language? Ms Sherriff used the memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox to suggest that phrases such as “Surrender Act” and “traitors” should not be used for fear that they could incite further death threats against herself and other MPs who regularly receive such threats.
Now, notwithstanding the fact that death threats against MPs are absolutely inexcusable and need to be taken extremely seriously, this is a classic Labour tactic, straight out of the Momentum playbook –and “humbug” – meaning “dishonest talk, writing or behaviour that is intended to deceive people” – is the most accurate description possible.
The tactic works as follows: Labour frequently use terms such as “the nasty party”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “racist”, “scum” to refer to the Tories, and they speak of Boris Johnson staging a “coup” by proroguing Parliament. John McDonnell speaks of wanting to live in a world where no Tory MP can travel anywhere in the country without fear of attack. Momentum hang a banner proclaiming “hang the Tories” outside the Conservative Party conference. Then they invoke the memory of Jo Cox to criticise Boris Johnson for using the words “surrender” and “traitor”, claiming, outrageously, that these particular words are likely to incite threats of violence, where presumably the words they use are to be considered completely without consequence. When Tory supporters protest, incredulously, about all the times that Labour have deployed far worse tactics and language, the response is simply “Well now you’re just engaging in whataboutery”.
It’s hard to understand the mindset that is so convinced of its position on the moral high-ground, that it can consider threats of violence against Tory MPs to be completely justified, while at the same time being mortally offended by somebody having the temerity to call out treachery and surrender for what they are. But “humbug” is a pretty good place to start. It is utter humbug to seek to shut down uncomfortable debate by invoking the memory of a dead MP, only to then object even more strongly when Mr Johnson rightly points out that the best way to honour the memory of that MP, who famously talked about “more that unites us than divides us” would be to get on with Brexit and try to reunite the country.
Even the Lib Dems have been jumping on the humbug bandwagon, condemning Mr Johnson’s use of the phrase “Surrender Bill” while protesting that their campaign slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” is just a joke. Though, of course, the Lib Dems have also seen themselves in the firing line from Labour, with Emily Thornberry likening the current leadership under Jo Swinson to the Taliban, with their plan to simply cancel the referendum result and revoke Article 50. That particular spat, famously, was won hands-down by Tim Farron with his response, via Twitter – “Come on Emily, if we really were like a Middle East terrorist group, don’t you think Jeremy would have invited us to a conference fringe meeting before now?”
I suppose given the tedium of Brexit, these ridiculous spats and barbs at least provide some entertainment – but we should all recognise them for the diversionary tactics they are; dishonest humbug intended to hide the appalling incompetence of our political class. I, for one, will continue to cheer on Boris Johnson every time he so accurately calls out the treachery, dishonesty and cowardice of those who keep trying to pretend they respect the result of the referendum, while doing everything in their power to prevent its implementation.