In Depth

A history of MPs murdered in office

Killing of Labour’s Jo Cox back in the headlines following controversial debate in Parliament

Commentators are at odds over when the fiery rhetoric used by MPs during this week’s parliamentary clashes crossed the line from impassioned to offensive. For some, it was Boris Johnson’s use of “surrender” when describing a potential Labour-sanctioned Brexit deal, while others pointed to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s assertion that opposition members were “cowards” for avoiding an election. 

But many believe the step too far came on Thursday when parliamentarians brought up Jo Cox, the Labour member for West Yorkshire’s Batley and Spen who was murdered by a far-right extremist in her constituency in 2016, shortly before the Brexit referendum.

Berating the prime minister over his criticism of legislation designed to block a no-deal Brexit, Labour MP Paula Sherriff pointed to a plaque in the chamber commemorating Cox and said: “We should not resort to using offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language for legislation that we do not like, and we stand here under the shield of our departed friend with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day.”

The Telegraph reports that the PM “provoked gasps in the Commons and was widely condemned” after responding that the best way to honour the murdered MP would be to “get Brexit done”.

Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon described Johnson as “untrustworthy, craven, not a shred of concern for the consequences of his words or actions”. And Dawn Butler, the shadow secretary for women and equalities, said his comments showed the PM to be “a cruel, uncaring, spoilt man”.

Cox’s widower, Brendan, tweeted that he felt “a bit sick” at the way her name was being used, and appealed for both sides to calm down, The Sun reports.

His late wife was 41 and had been an MP for just over one year at the time of her murder, which prompted outrage and tributes from across the world.

She was the eighth British MP to have been killed while serving a term in Parliament. Here are the other seven lawmakers who were murdered.

Spencer Perceval, Tory (1762-1812)

The only British prime minister to have been assassinated, Spencer Perceval was gunned down in the lobby of Parliament on 11 May 1812 by John Bellingham, a failed merchant from Liverpool, says the BBC History Extra site. 

Perceval had served as the Tory MP for Northampton since 1796 and as PM for two-and-a-half years. He is thought to have been murdered over what Bellingham considered to be an injustice against himself. Bellingham had been falsely imprisoned for debt in Russia in 1804, and was angry that neither the British embassy nor the UK government would facilitate his release nor grant him compensation that he felt he was owed after being freed. 

Bellingham was sentenced to death in a quick trial and was hanged in public exactly a week after killing Perceval.

Lord Frederick Cavendish, Liberal (1836-1882)

Lord Frederick Cavendish of the Liberal Party was the first sitting MP to be killed by Irish Republican extremists. Just hours after travelling to Dublin to take up the role of chief secretary for Ireland on 6 May 1882, Cavendish and the permanent under secretary at the Irish Office, Thomas Henry Burke, were stabbed to death by members of the Irish National Invincibles, a splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Five of the assassins were tried and hanged the following year, while several others were sentenced to long prison terms, Encyclopedia Britannica says.

Sir Henry Wilson, Ulster Unionist (1864-1922)

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, a decorated soldier and MP for North Down in Northern Ireland, was assassinated on the steps of his home in London on 22 June 1922.

Two London-based members of the Irish Republican Army, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were apprehended at the scene and later hanged, but no chain of command has ever been established, and the orchestrator of the assassination has never been determined.

Wilson had been staunchly anti-Republican, and his assassination “led directly to the civil war in Ireland”, according to The Irish Times.

Airey Neave, Conservative (1916-1979)

Just weeks before an election that would see his party leader Margaret Thatcher take power, then shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Airey Neave was fatally wounded by an Irish National Liberation Army bomb as he left a House of Commons car park on 30 March 1979.

Neave, who had been the first British officer to escape from Colditz during the Second World War, was a close ally and friend of Thatcher, who was said to have been “numb with shock” upon hearing of his death. He had served as the Conservative MP for Abingdon since 1953.

Reverend Robert Bradford, Ulster Unionist (1941-1981)

Just two years after the death of Neave, Irish republican militants orchestrated the shooting of Belfast South MP Robert Bradford.

In a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, the IRA alleged that Bradford had been “one of the key people responsible for winding up the loyalist paramilitary sectarian machine”. As The New York Times reported at the time, Bradford “was an outspoken critic of the Irish nationalist guerrillas” and had “repeatedly called for the reimposition of capital punishment in the province and for other strong deterrent measures”.

Sir Anthony Berry, Conservative (1925-1984)

Enfield Southgate MP Anthony Berry, who served as deputy chief whip under Thatcher, was killed on 12 October 1984 in the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the PM and her cabinet were staying during the Conservative Party conference.

The bomb, planted by IRA member Patrick McGee, killed four other people, and left Norman Tebbit’s wife paralysed. McGee was given eight life sentences by the British courts but was released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ian Gow, Conservative (1937-1990)

At the tail end of the Thatcher era, tensions between the UK and Ireland escalated once again following the assassination by the IRA of Ian Gow, the Conservative MP for Eastbourne since 1974. He was killed by a car bomb as he reversed out of his driveway at his home in East Sussex on 30 July 1990.

Following his death, The Chicago Tribune reported that Gow had been widely known for his “outspoken scorn for the Irish Republican Army” and had also frequently failed to follow recommended security protocol. “He was one of but a handful of MPs who allow their addresses to be published” and, against the advice of security officials, had held “regular weekend schedule of public meetings with his constituents and services at the village church”, the newspaper said.


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