Boris won’t back down: PM refuses to apologise despite Tory furore over Savile slur

8 February 2022, 11:52 | Updated: 8 February 2022, 14:25

By Will Taylor

Boris Johnson will not apologise for his controversial attack on Sir Keir Starmer accusing him of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, Downing Street has insisted.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman this afternoon acknowledged his original words in the Commons were "capable of being misconstrued" which was why he subsequently issued a "clarification".

"The Prime Minister clarified his remarks last week to make clear he was not suggesting Keir Starmer was individually responsible for the Savile decision," the spokesman said.

He added: "I think the Prime Minister was making a political point about taking responsibility for organisations as a whole."

Mr Johnson made the baseless claim that the Labour leader failed to prosecute Savile as director of public prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service last week.

Yesterday, a mob was seen harassing Sir Keir and shouting remarks about Savile as police bundled him away from their protest near the Ministry of Defence and into a car in fraught footage.

The PM is facing calls to apologise over his remarks, which some blamed for inciting the mob to target the leader of the opposition. Among those to criticise the PM are some of his own backbenchers.

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Speaker Lindsay Hoyle today condemned Mr Johnson over the insult, declaring "our words have consequences".

Mr Hoyle told the House of Commons: "These sorts of comments only inflame opinions and generate disregard for the House and it is not acceptable.

"Our words have consequences and we should always be mindful of the fact."

He said he had "made it clear last week that while the Prime Minister's words were not disorderly they were inappropriate", but added he was updating the House after "it has been reported that some abuse was directed at the leader of the Opposition yesterday related to claims made by the Prime Minister in this chamber".

Mr Hoyle said last week: "I will seek not to intervene unless something is said which is disorderly. Procedurally, nothing disorderly occurred.

"But such allegations should not be made lightly. I am far from satisfied that the comments in question were appropriate on this occasion."

A minister earlier insisted the embattled PM's slur is not to blame for the mob that harassed the Labour leader on Monday night.

"I don't think [he needs to apologise]," digital minister Chris Philp told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast.

"The Prime Minister last week clarified his remarks to make clear what he said in Parliament was not suggesting Keir Starmer was personally and individually responsible for the Jimmy Savile prosecution decisions, but that Keir Starmer as director of public prosecutions had overall responsibility for the CPS, something that Keir Starmer acknowledged on his own website and subsequently… apologised for the CPS's general failings in relation to the Savile case."

He added: "On the point about whether Boris Johnson's remarks caused or prompted the totally unacceptable harassment and intimidation of Keir Starmer last night – I don't think you can make that link for a couple of reasons."

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He said some of the people who mobbed Sir Keir had done it to other public figures, including Michael Gove and Nicholas Watt at the BBC, and that they were mostly talking about Julian Assange, Covid and the "general conduct" of the opposition, as well as Savile.

"I don't think you can make the case that Boris Johnson's remarks prompted or caused what we saw last night."

Asked if he would have made the Savile comments to Sir Keir, said by Mr Johnson in Parliament last week, Mr Philp said "until you stand in someone's shoes you shouldn't speculate about what you may or may not say in a difficult or stressful situation".

He continued: "I'm not sure I would have made them in that context but I think the comments were drawing attention to someone’s general track record in public office, is a reasonable thing to do."

Protesters shouted insults such as "traitor" as Sir Keir was mobbed in footage from Monday evening.

Jeremy Corbyn's brother Piers was thought to have been among the protesters at one point. The protest drew criticism online and from politicians.

A spokesman for the Met Police said a man and a woman were arrested at the scene for assault of an emergency worker after a traffic cone was thrown at a police officer.

Boris Johnson said in Parliament last week: "Instead this leader of the opposition - a former director of public prosecution who used his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can see - he chose to use this moment to continually pre-judge a police inquiry."

Conservative MPs including former chief whip Julian Smith hit out, with Mr Smith describing the mob against Sir Keir as "appalling" while he called on the Prime Minister to withdraw his "slur".

"It is really important for our democracy & for his security that the false Savile slurs made against him are withdrawn in full," Mr Smith said.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood added: "PM - Apologise please. We claim to be the Mother of all Parliaments.

"Let’s stop this drift towards a Trumpian style of politics from becoming the norm. We are better than this."

Sir Roger Gale MP posted online: "Grim scenes outside Parliament today and disgraceful treatment of Sir Keir Starmer.

"All Members of Parliament have a right to go about our lawful business without intimidation. This, I fear, is the direct result of the deliberately careless use of language in the Chamber."

Tory MPs Stephen Hammond, Anthony Mangnall, Aaron Bell and Rob Largan also publicly condemned the comments made by Boris Johnson.

Simon Hoare, another Tory, retweeted Mr Smith's remarks while former cabinet minister David Davis told late on Monday night that LBC Mr Johnson needed to say sorry.

Boris Johnson said on Twitter: "The behaviour directed at the Leader of the Opposition tonight is absolutely disgraceful.

"All forms of harassment of our elected representatives are completely unacceptable. I thank the police for responding swiftly."

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP who was next to Sir Keir during the incident, told LBC: "On exiting the MoD, walking down, not very far from the MoD, we were accosted by a rabble of what appeared to be people chanting about the vaccine, but also repeating slurs we heard in Parliament last week.. in relation to Jimmy Savile and Keir Starmer.

"It was very aggressive, very ferocious, incredibly hostile. I think the atmosphere was febrile and the behaviour of some of the protesters was slightly crazed.

"This rabble crossed the street… once they had spotted Keir Starmer and myself.

"I'm born and raised in Tottenham. I wasn't going to let these thugs get their way. Keir was incredibly cool, very collected and was simply determined to make his way back and into Parliament."

"What they were chanting was obscene, it was horrific. This sort of behaviour is undemocratic, it's not in the spirit of how we have differences of opinion or debate in our country."

Mr Johnson's head of policy and long-time ally Munira Mirza resigned over his remarks.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, widely tipped as a front runner in any Tory leadership election that would take place LBC distanced himself from the Prime Minister's comments, saying: "Being honest I wouldn't have said it and I'm glad that the Prime Minister clarified what he meant."

"Shortly after 17.10hrs on Monday, 7 February, a man who had been surrounded by a group of protesters near to New Scotland Yard, was taken away from the scene by a police car," the spokesman said.

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