British MP Jo Cox’s murder took place on Thursday 16 June, exactly a week before the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. The motives of the shooting and the sequence of events leading up to it remain unclear. However, the fact that Jo Cox took a pro-European stance and advocated the protection of refugees during a bitter campaign while her killer sympathised with her opponents was enough for the tragedy to start being used for political purposes. Meanwhile, it looks like those opposing Brexit, especially in the Conservative party, have become reconciled to potential defeat and are already thinking about their future.
In the week leading up to the murder, advocates of leaving the EU more often surpassed their rivals in the opinion polls. Moreover, according to some estimates, they even had a 10% lead.
The first data collected after the tragedy indicated that the advantage in the campaign went to the Remain side. Supporters of keeping the UK in the EU not only closed the gap but also moved ahead by 1-3%.
Furthermore, the Sunday Mirror tied the murder and change of public attitudes together directly. In a front-page article, the paper cited the trend observed by the company ComRes at the time the survey was conducted, on Wednesday and Thursday. According to the analysts, the proportions in the respondents’ answers began to change as the news stories rolled out, first on the attempt on the MP and then on her death. If before the tragedy 45% of responses were in favour of leaving the EU, afterwards it was only 38%.
These surveys and the impression produced by them have been so discouraging for the advocates of Brexit that they could not hold back from expressing some despair. “I think we have momentum – we did have momentum until this terrible tragedy,” said Nigel Farage, leader of the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), on Sunday. “It has had an impact on the whole campaign for everybody,” he continued.
Death as a weapon
“Don’t use the killing of Jo Cox as a political tool in the EU referendum debate,” Sun tabloid columnist Louise Mensch appealed to politicians. She pointed out that the man who had committed the crime was, first and foremost, mentally ill and that this has long been, in contrast to the circumstances of the tragedy, an established and known fact.
“It is beyond disgusting to use this man’s mental collapse and psychological unsoundness as a weapon in a political campaign,” she said.
Her arguments were not heard, however. The tragedy immediately sparked several discussions: on how polarised society had become because of the referendum, on the issue of where rhetorical limits must be set so that the vying sides can debate freely without there being any devolution into violence, as well as on what to do with far-right parties and the threat of extremism associated with them. But the main thing is that Jo Cox was made the symbol of the Remain campaign practically overnight and her death presented as the consequence of the Eurosceptics’ supposedly explosive and false statements.
For example, leading columnist at the Observer Andrew Rawnsley accused them of building their entire campaign on deceit. Discussing the death of the MP, he wrote that they should ask themselves “whether they are really happy that the overall effect [of their actions] has been to depress respect for politicians on both sides”.
Along with the controversial nature of the campaign itself, the fact that Cox’s killer sympathised with the far right, which unconditionally supported the UK’s exit from the EU and called for the radical reduction of immigration, inadvertently provided grounds for pro-European politicians to claim moral superiority over their opponents.
On Sunday television shows, Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron called for a more peaceful campaign and a reliance on facts while at the same time directing no shortage of epithets at Nigel Farage. The former called his poster “disgusting and vile”, comparing it with propaganda used in Nazi Germany, and the latter accused him of scaremongering.
There was also Cameron’s article on the referendum in the Sunday Telegraph. And a significant portion of it was devoted to Jo Cox. The article starts out with regrets over her death and admiration for her personal and political qualities. “She cared about our country,” writes the prime minister, then turning the question to the referendum and adding that the MP had repeatedly emphasised the moment’s importance.
Such blatant use of the death of the pro-European politician in the campaign itself provoked angry retorts. The prime minister was reproached for attempting to make people vote out of pity. “David Cameron ‘is using Jo Cox’s death’ in the campaign,” wrote the Metro paper; “Remain side spinning Jo Cox’s murder” Conservative Party MP Andrew Murrison stated with indignation.
Not everyone shares the belief that the murder really was the turning point for the public mood. For example, experts from UK Polling Report – an independent project dedicated to analysing social and political moods – are sceptical of this assertion. One of them expressed the opinion that, first of all, the signs of the reversal were observable even before, and secondly, they are more likely related to the growing realisation among the British that their personal finances will worsen if Brexit actually happens.
But the death of Jo Cox, like no other argument, has disarmed the Eurosceptics. Despite continuing forward in their campaign, the majority of them do not now know how to answer without attacking in the process. Nigel Farage’s attempt to label himself a victim can here be seen as a clearly desperate move.
“We must not put the motives of people under doubt, even if we do not agree with their conclusions,” co-founder of the Leave campaign, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, also said conciliatorily in an interview. As the author of the article mentioned, the politician “has no appetite for going on the attack” against the prime minister whom he had earlier mercilessly criticised.
The behaviour of Conservative Eurosceptics exhibited signs that many of them are finally starting to take the long-term into account. Ultimately, the referendum will pass and they will still have to be in the same party with the probable victors. From this point of view, it seems logical that Andrew Murrison later deleted his accusatory tweet.
Finally, David Cameron’s Sunday appearance on the BBC met with the unexpected enthusiasm of many of his colleagues. ‘Reading the tweets of some Tory MPs this evening, they might just as well delete all and insert “Isn’t the PM just simply marvellous,”’ quipped journalist Iain Dale. ‘Look for promotion maybe,’ the once influential conservative Lord Ashcroft proposed (tweet now deleted) in response.