The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, was bundled into a police car on Monday after being confronted by angry protesters, an incident which some lawmakers have linked to false claims about him by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson described the incident near parliament in central London as “absolutely disgraceful” and “completely unacceptable”.
It comes as Johnson tries to reset his administration in the face of a series of scandals, including alcohol-fuelled parties at his Downing Street office and residence during coronavirus lockdowns, that have put his position in peril.
Footage on social media showed Starmer, 59, being surrounded by a crowd, who had been attending an anti-COVID-19 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.
That appeared to be a reference to an accusation made in parliament by Johnson that Starmer had failed to prosecute Savile, one of Britain’s most notorious sex offenders, during his time as director of public prosecutions.
“No surprise the conspiracy theorist thugs who harassed @Keir_Starmer & I repeated slurs we heard from @BorisJohnson last week at the despatch box,” David Lammy, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman who had been with Starmer, said on Twitter.
Johnson has been widely criticised for the barb about Savile, including from some lawmakers in his own Conservative Party, while Starmer accused him of “parroting the conspiracy theories of violent fascists”.
Although Johnson later attempted to clarify his comments, he has declined to apologise or withdraw them, which led to his head of policy Munira Mirza, one of his closest aides, quitting her job last Thursday. She called the remarks an “inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse”.
Responding to Monday’s incident, 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.”
However, some Conservatives said the prime minister needed to respond further.
“What happened to Keir Starmer tonight outside parliament is appalling,” lawmaker Julian Smith said on Twitter. “It is really important for our democracy & for his security that the false Savile slurs made against him are withdrawn in full.”
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. Starmer headed the Crown Prosecution Service at a time Savile was being investigated, but the CPS said Starmer had had no direct role in the decision not to prosecute Savile. Starmer later issued an apology for CPS failings.
The Starmer incident also follows growing concern about the safety of politicians following the murder of David Amess who was stabbed to death at a public meeting last October, the second lawmaker to be killed in five years.
Eleanor Laing, the deputy speaker of the House of Commons said Starmer and Lammy had been “mobbed outside parliament”. Home Secretary Priti Patel, the interior minister, said the scenes were “completely unacceptable” and said she was in contact with police.
In a statement, police said “a man who had been surrounded by a group of protesters … was taken away from the scene by a police car”, and that two people had been arrested after a traffic cone was thrown at an officer.