Yesterday Paula Sherriff said (quote from Hansard, emphasis mine):

We stand here, Mr Speaker, under the shield of our departed friend. Many of us in this place are subject to death threats and abuse every single day. Let me tell the Prime Minister that they often quote his words—surrender Act, betrayal, traitor—and I, for one, am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and that has to come from the Prime Minister first, so I should be interested in hearing his opinion. He should be absolutely ashamed of himself. [Applause.]

Boris Johnson has indeed referred to the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 as the "surrender Act", and for all I know he has referred to some policy or position as being a "betrayal" (as is commonly done in politics, and unremarkable). But Sherriff's claim - made in the context of Boris's rhetoric supposedly inciting abuse against MPs - notably includes only one example of an epithet directed at an individual - the word "traitor".

Yesterday's Hansard transcript certainly contains no instance of any politician referring to another as a "traitor"; the only uses of the word are by MPs talking about how bad it is for people to be called traitors. Boris perhaps meant to deny the claim that he had used such language (though his precise meaning was unclear) by responding that it was "humbug". And, according to the Guardian, conservative MP James Cleverly explicitly denies the claim:

But the Conservative party chair, James Cleverly, defended Johnson’s comments to MPs in the Commons. He denied that the PM called opposition MPs “traitors”.

“The accusations thrown at him yesterday were deeply unfair,” Cleverly said. “He was accused of calling people traitors – he has never done that.”

Has Boris Johnson ever referred to any of his opponents, whether individually or collectively, as a "traitor" or "traitors"? Or is this part of Paula Sherriff's accusation untrue?


2 Answers 2


"Guilty of betrayal", which at least implies the person so accused being a traitor.


I know that my Right Honourable friend will appreciate that in deciding to remain in the customs union, the leader of the opposition is guilty of a shameless U-turn and a betrayal of millions of people who voted 'leave'.

Wanting to "betray the people" (also "selfish", and being "cowards").


Out of sheer selfishness and political cowardice, members opposite are unwilling to move aside and give the people a say. We will not betray the people who sent us here. That is what they want to do.

I was not able to find a direct quote using the word traitor explicitly, but then, all I had was a couple of sessions I watched live and what search engines served up.

Looking at how the threats on opposition do "quote his words -- 'Surrender Act', 'betrayal', 'traitor'", I'd say the statement is two-point-x out of three correct, because he has used the first two (repeatedly), and at least implied the third.

Let's have a look at that "denial" by James Cleverly in turn:

The accusations thrown at him yesterday were deeply unfair. He was accused of calling people traitors – he has never done that.

Johnson has used the term "Surrender Act" (a position that was affirmed again today), he has called the actions of the opposition a betrayal, and at least implied the term traitor. Many of his followers have used that word (and worse) publicly, and at the very least Johnson is utterly unapologetic about any of it ("never heard such humbug").

Calling accusations of him escalating the language used in and about parliament "deeply unfair" because he might not have used one of those three words explicitly is a bit rich.

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It seems improbable that Johnson would have used the "traitor" word in Parliament at least, because it is considered unparliamentary language.

Terms of abuse that have been ruled as out of order include coward, hooligan, rat and traitor.

(Interestingly though, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox did recently refer to the opposition as "too cowardly" but that was not ruled out of order. I guess only remarks against specific MPs count.)

Another argument that Johnson did not use the exact "traitor" word is that the specific allegation does not seem to have been made by anyone else besides Sheriff, despite the large volume of complaints against Johnson's language more generally.

For example, Johnson's sister, who is politically involved in opposing Brexit said this instead, as Reuters relates:

It was not just politicians who were angry. Johnson’s sister Rachel described her brother’s words as a “particularly tasteless” way to refer to the memory of a murdered lawmaker.

“Words like collaborationist, traitor, betrayal, my brother using words like surrender, capitulation, as if the people who are standing in the way of the blessed will of the people as defined by 17.4 million votes in 2016 should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred and feathered,” she told Sky News.

“I think that it is highly reprehensible language to use.”

Now, it is also true that Boris Johnson is not as parliamentary in his private speech. A recording of him saying the F-word in relation to businesses who were worried about Brexit surfaced last summer. So it's anybody's guess what Boris Johnson might say nowadays about anti-Brexiteers in private. But I think the most reasonable reading of Sheriff's statement is that Johnson said all that in public, with some regularity.

Finally, since the OP didn't discuss this at all, but is an important part of Sheriff's claim nonetheless: it is true that other Brexit supporters, especially those from the English far right movements, routinely use the word "traitor" to refer to those opposing Brexit. For example:

The English Defence League founder called on his followers to “back Boris” and characterised him as a champion “for the people” versus “traitors in parliament”, and “corrupt elite scumbags”.

Robinson’s supporters heaped praise on the prime minister in a series of comments, with one writing: “Go Boris, f*** the lot of them scumbag traitor bastards.” [...]

Hopkins, a far-right activist who called refugees “cockroaches” and called for a “final solution” after the Manchester attack, called his performance “utterly brilliant”, writing on Twitter: “MPs complaining about being called TRAITOR – it’s because you betrayed the people and you betrayed democracy in the UK.”

Beyond those speeches, it is also true that anti-Brexiteers are heckled in public with the word traitor or even have that message sent in a more concrete form.

So my conclusions are:

  • If you want to focus on the narrow claim that Johnson used the word "traitor" (to refer to anti-Brexiteers), then the claim appears false.

  • Everything else about statements in that claim of Sheriff is probably true.

  • Whether Johnson's speech influences the public and/or the more extremist elements (or even the other way around, whether is Johnson embracing some of the rhetoric already in use) is probably going to be hotly debated, with positions falling on predictable [political] lines. It's probably too early to expect an academic study on something like this (whose language influenced whose).

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    @MarkAmery: By this time it is pretty clear that you want to limit the answers to be only about "'traitor' or not". The only way to achieve this would be by limiting the question. For that, you'd have to acknowledge that you're taking that one term out of its context.
    – DevSolar
    Sep 30, 2019 at 8:24
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    @DevSolar I did limit the question to being about that. I'm completely explicit about it in both the title and the body, yet apparently folks like you can't resist jumping on your soapbox to bring up a bunch of tangentially related facts and commentate on what political conclusions we should draw from them. As for taking it out of context, I don't know what you mean, since I describe and quote the context in the question.
    – Mark Amery
    Sep 30, 2019 at 10:49
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    @MarkAmery: Oh wow, now we're getting real personal, are we? People "like me"? All tangents involved were brought up by you. You made it perfectly clear, by how you quoted the context and in various comments, that you are determined to use the truth value of "did Johnson use that term or not" as a handle for Mrs. Sherriff's criticism as a whole -- and then you complain when answers refuse to do so and put that truth value back in context.
    – DevSolar
    Sep 30, 2019 at 10:56
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    @DevSolar "You made it perfectly clear, by how you quoted the context and in various comments, that you are determined to use the truth value of "did Johnson use that term or not" as a handle for Mrs. Sherriff's criticism as a whole" - on the contrary, I deliberately avoided doing this, instead conceding the points that I was already aware were true, and deliberately wording my question as asking whether "this part" of her accusation was a falsehood. I not only left open the possibility of other (in my view, largely irrelevant) parts being true but explicitly affirmed their truth.
    – Mark Amery
    Sep 30, 2019 at 11:01
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    "You want the answers to ignore the context you gave" - Well, yes. Of course I want the answers - to this question about a point of fact, on a site whose purpose is to fact-check claims of fact - to ignore "the context" of whether Boris Johnson is a big meanie. If I wanted to engage in an open-ended discussion of the merit or dismerit of Boris Johnson's rhetoric, I'd go to Reddit, the pub, or maybe Politics Stack Exchange. That's not what a fact-checking site is meant to be for.
    – Mark Amery
    Sep 30, 2019 at 11:21

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