After protesters hounded Britain's Labour leader Keir Starmer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced pressure on Tuesday to withdraw a claim that the opposition leader had failed to prosecute one of the country's most notorious child abusers.
Johnson, who won a landslide in a 2019 election, is facing the gravest crisis of his premiership after a series of scandals including revelations that he and his staff attended Downing Street parties during Covid lockdowns.
As Johnson apologised to parliament for the parties on Jan. 31, he falsely claimed Starmer had failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a late TV star who abused hundreds of children, during his time as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
Starmer was confronted by angry protesters on Monday who surrounded him after an anti-Covid vaccination demonstration.
Before being escorted into a police car, some of the protesters can be heard shouting "Traitor!" and "Were you protecting Jimmy Savile?" at him.
"It is really important for our democracy and for his security that the false Savile slurs made against him are withdrawn in full," Conservative lawmaker Julian Smith said.
Another Conservative lawmaker, Roger Gale, said such treatment of Starmer was disgraceful.
"This, I fear, is the direct result of the deliberately careless use of language in the Chamber," Gale said.
The row risks further undermining Johnson's authority as he battles to reshape his Downing Street team and face off claims from opposition parties that he is unfit to govern.
Opposition lawmakers called on Johnson, who cast the harassment of Starmer as disgraceful, to apologise for the Savile remarks.
Savile, a BBC TV and radio host who was never prosecuted despite a number of police investigations, died in 2011, aged 84. After his death it was revealed he had abused hundreds of victims, mainly children. The youngest victim was an 8-year-old boy.
'POISON' IN POLITICS
Johnson's supporters said that while the behaviour of the protesters was unacceptable, it was a step too far to pin the blame for their actions on the prime minister.
The husband of Jo Cox, a British lawmaker stabbed to death just days before the 2016 Brexit referendum, said that while those who harassed Starmer were responsible, injecting poison into politics had unintended consequences.
"If you inject poison into politics that has a whole set of unintended consequences," Brendan Cox told BBC radio.
"When you throw around accusations of people protecting paedophiles or not moving against paedophiles, it creates a viscerality of debate and a violence of emotional reaction."
Johnson clarified his remarks on Feb. 3, saying that he had not meant to imply Starmer had personally failed to prosecute one of Britain's most notorious sex offenders.
"I don't think you can point to what the prime minister said as the cause of that - you certainly can't blame him," Chris Philp, Britain's minister for technology and the digital Economy, told Sky.
"I don't think it in any way justified or provoked or incited the terrible and totally unacceptable harassment and intimidation of the leader of the opposition," Philp said.
Johnson's clarification failed to satisfy Munira Mirza, his head of policy who had worked with him for 14 years, and prompted her to quit her job last week. Finance Minister Rishi Sunak has also said he would not have made such a remark.