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article imageBritish MPs erupt over 'stupid woman' jibe

By Alice RITCHIE (AFP)     Dec 19, 2018 in Politics

Britain's House of Commons erupted into outrage and near mutiny on Wednesday over an alleged sexist jibe by the opposition leader against Prime Minister Theresa May.

After months of warring over Brexit, MPs in the governing Conservative Party were united in condemnation of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was accused of muttering that May was a "stupid woman".

"This kind of misogynistic language must not be tolerated," fumed Conservative deputy chairman James Cleverly, while some female Labour MPs also warned it was "not ok".

But Corbyn said he had used the words "stupid people", referring not to May but those "seeking to turn a debate about the national crisis facing our country into a pantomime".

He said he was "completely opposed to the use of sexist or misogynist language".

There is growing concern about the level of abuse received by female politicians, especially on social media, and May said Wednesday she did not want women to be "put off" becoming MPs by what might be said in parliament.

"I think it is incumbent on all of us in the House of Commons to be careful about the language that we use," she told reporters.

However, several Labour MPs accused the Conservatives of exaggerating the row, which comes one day before parliament breaks for the Christmas holidays.

Labour former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett said it looked like an "orchestrated riot" by Conservative MPs.

Labour lawmaker Laura Smith lamented the "level of party politics that is being played out" -- only to be met with shouts and heckling from Conservatives.

She accused the Conservatives of an "astounding" level of hypocrisy, saying Labour had to put up "with the most disgraceful insults thrown at us" every day.

- Panto time -

Corbyn was caught on camera mouthing the word "stupid" after clashing with May during her weekly prime minister's questions session.

The Brexit deal struck between May's government and the European Union is unpopular with MPs and Corbyn is furious that she has delayed a Commons vote on the agreement until January -- just weeks before Britain leaves the EU on March 29.

London and Brussels this week stepped up planning for a "no deal" scenario, which Corbyn warned this would be a "disaster for our country".

May hit back by comparing to a pantomime -- complete with panto cries of "oh no he isn't" -- Labour's efforts to challenge but not yet take down her government.

Footage of the "stupid" comment quickly went viral on social media, watched by MPs on their phones -- who then stood up in the Commons to ask Corbyn to apologise.

When Speaker John Bercow said he had neither seen or heard the remark, he came under fire himself.

One minister, Andrea Leadsom, reminded him of accusations that he called her a "stupid woman" earlier this year -- claims he denied.

A few hours later, after consulting what he called "lip speakers" Bercow told MPs that nobody could know for sure what Corbyn said and his denial must be accepted.

But several Conservatives continued to demand an apology, and again aimed their fury at Bercow, with one, Vicky Ford, saying he had also once called her a "stupid woman", something he strongly rejected.

Bercow has been accusing of bullying and using abusive language in the past, and faced calls to resign as Speaker earlier this year.

He has also riled Conservatives with his chairing of Brexit debates that seem to favour the opposition Labour party.

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