MPs have described difficult conversations with their families about staying in parliament amid threats, and complained of a sense of complacency from police.
As MPs returned to Westminster after the killing of Sir David Amess on Friday, many said they had had difficult discussions with relatives over the weekend. “My husband is asking me, how long can this really go on? How much do we have to take? Is it worth it? And in truth at the moment I don’t have the answer for him,” one MP said.
The former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom said: “Many have families asking why on earth they are doing it, or begging them to leave politics.” She added: “Yet what drives MPs is the desire to make the world a better place. It’s as simple and profound as that – we all care for all of you.”
Some cited a lack of resources to give them security in their constituencies, with constituents themselves offering to provide protection.
Watch: Sir David Amess: UK's parliament pays tribute to murdered MP
On Monday, the Labour MP Chris Bryant revealed a 76-year-old man had been arrested over an alleged death threat against him, made following Bryant’s appeal for kindness in the wake of Amess’s death.
Much discussion has focused on threats to MPs on social media and renewed calls for a ban on online anonymity. But several MPs said privately that their biggest worries did not come from online threats. Threats can be made in person, and constituency surgeries, held weekly, have left them feeling particularly vulnerable.
“No one wants to change the system but four MPs have been attacked at their surgeries during my time and three people are dead because of it,” one Tory MP said. “I’m not aware of anyone being killed by someone who tweeted at them.”
A Labour MP said the most frightening targeting had been in-person, with an uneasy sense that as an elected representative well-known in the local area MPs can often represent a target for anger.
“The most frightening stuff isn’t social media-related,” one said, describing an unwell resident who followed them repeatedly, sometimes when the MP was out with their children. Many described police as being unwilling to do much to assist. “I get my protection from local residents who keep offering to be bodyguards,” said one MP.
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Another Labour MP said they gave statements to police only about the most aggressive and specific threats they received, and that was about once a fortnight.
Ali Harbi Ali, the suspect in the killing of Amess still being questioned by police, was thought to have lived previously in Southend, where Amess was the MP, but more recently in north London, where his MP would have been the Labour leader, Keir Starmer. A representative confirmed Starmer held his own surgery as normal on Friday.
Most MPs were deeply committed to continue holding their surgeries in person in their constituencies, something they regard as a unique and vital part of the British political system. The former minister Tobias Ellwood, who found himself at the centre of a terror attack when he tried to resuscitate PC Keith Palmer after a knife attack in Westminster, has been the only one to openly question whether online surgeries might be safer.
On Monday, though still in a state of shock, most MPs said they disagreed. For many backbenchers, helping constituencies untangle complex housing needs, welfare claims or battles with faceless corporates is one of the few areas of their job where they have real ability to change lives. “The truth is, it keeps us in touch,” one Tory said. “You know exactly which colleagues don’t bother with surgeries – they are the ones who have no idea about the real world.”