London: UK opposition Labour Party lawmaker and anti-Brexit campaigner Jo Cox was murdered on Thursday as she met constituents, shocking Britain and silencing the increasingly bitter debate about membership of the European Union.
It was the first killing of a Member of Parliament in more than two decades, since the days of Irish Republican terrorism. All campaigning in the referendum, just a week away, was suspended. It is unclear when it will resume.
The 41-year-old Cox, who was only elected to the House of Commons last year, was a passionate supporter of EU membership: the previous day her husband Brendan took their two young children out onto the River Thames to fly an “IN” flag from a motorboat.
“She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now: one that our precious children are bathed in love, and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her,” he said in a statement. “Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.”
The day had started with Brexit supporters attacking both chancellor of exchequer George Osborne and Bank of England governor Mark Carney over their warnings of the economic dangers of leaving the EU. With polls suggesting the country was moving toward leaving, the Labour Party was trying to rally supporters in northern cities. Prime Minister David Cameron was due to address a rally in favour of EU membership in Gibraltar. All that was abandoned as news of the attack came through.
Carney and Osborne were both due to address the Mansion House dinner Thursday evening. The Bank of England said the governor would instead give shortened remarks “reflecting on today’s events”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it was delaying a planned release of reports on the implications of UK leaving the EU.
Cox was killed outside the venue for one of her regular sessions at which constituents in the town of Birstall can seek advice and help.
“Jo was attacked by a man who inflicted serious and, sadly, ultimately fatal injuries,” West Yorkshire Police’s temporary chief constable, Dee Collins, said in a televised news conference in Wakefield. The Press Association, the UK’s national newswire, reported that Cox was shot twice and stabbed. Eyewitnesses speaking to the BBC described her attacker as having a gun he’d fashioned himself.
Collins said Cox was pronounced dead at 1.48pm London time by a doctor who was working with paramedics. She said police had arrested a 52-year-old man and weren’t looking for anyone else. They recovered a number of weapons including a firearm, she said.
“We’ve lost a great star,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in a televised statement. “Jo was a great campaigning MP with huge compassion and a big heart.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the whole party is “in shock” and paid tribute. “Jo had a lifelong record of public service and a deep commitment to humanity,” he said in a statement. “Jo died doing her public duty at the heart of our democracy, listening to and representing the people she was elected to serve.”
The Guardian newspaper reported an eyewitness as saying Cox’s attacker had shouted “Britain First”. It said local resident Graeme Howard ran to the scene when he heard the first shot. “There was loads of screaming and shouting and the police officers showed up,” he was cited as saying. “He was shouting ‘Britain First’ when he was doing it and being arrested. He was pinned down by two police officers and she was taken away in an ambulance.”
“Britain First” is the name of a group that campaigns against immigration and Britain’s membership of the EU. A video on the group’s website showed activists learning combat techniques at a “training camp” in the Snowdonia mountains of North Wales. In a statement on the site, the group said it “obviously is NOT involved and would never encourage behavior of this sort.”
Collins said police were “not in a position to discuss any motive”. Mark Burns Williamson, the police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire, sought to reassure minority ethnic groups in the area. “I want to try to reassure communities that our information is that this is a localized incident, albeit one that has a much wider impact,” he said.
Guns are very tightly controlled in the UK, and shootings are rare. Since the end of the terrorism campaigns in Northern Ireland, there have been few attacks on lawmakers. In 2010, Labour’s Stephen Timms was stabbed in the stomach by a constituent who had been radicalized by watching Islamic preachers online. He made a full recovery.
The last member of Parliament to be killed was Ian Gow, who was murdered by an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb at his home in Sussex in 1990.