Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on how a Tory councillor has been forced into a climbdown after appearing to voice support for right-wing thugs after their assault on peaceful protesters
There was cross-party condemnation last night for Steve O’Connell, the Croydon Conservative councillor, after he tweeted “you reap what they sow” when a group of campaigners for a second referendum were attacked by far-right yobs.
A former Tory colleague branded O’Connell’s remarks as “terrifying”, as the comments were widely seen as an endorsement of such assaults.
O’Connell is the London Assembly member for Croydon and Sutton. His remarks may see his position as chair of the police scrutiny committee at City Hall called into question.
The Kenley ward councillor had responded to a video posted online by Tory MP Anna Soubry, which appears to show Remain demonstrators in Sunderland on Saturday being assaulted in the street.
“Never seen anything like it a bunch of thugs assault @peoplesvote_uk in #Sunderland bringing shame on a great city and its people and our country,” Soubry had posted. “We will not give in to the #Brexit.”
O’Connell’s controversial response read: “No excuse for any violence. But aspire to defy democracy and cheat people, you may reap what you sow. The shame is yours and your like.”
O’Connell’s remarks were condemned by politicians of all parties, including a former aide to Boris Johnson.
“’No excuse … but … reap what you sow.’ Terrifying Steve.
“Clear threat against those that disagree with you. That’s a genuine threat to democracy not daring to ask for another vote. Unless you’re worried people have changed their minds?” was the tweeted reponse from Matthew Pencharz, a Conservative who worked at City Hall as Johnson’s deputy mayor.
Labour London Assembly Member Tom Copley called on O’Connell to withdraw his remarks and apologise.
“Steve that’s an appalling thing to say. Shame on you,” Copley tweeted shortly after Inside Croydon had drawn the remarks to his attention.
“Your tweet clearly blamed the marchers rather than the people attacking them,” Copley wrote.
“You’re saying that brought it on themselves. That’s appalling. You should retract and apologise.”
And today Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member, pictured below, told Inside Croydon, “Politicians need to be careful with what they tweet.
“Steve O’Connell’s tweet is offensive and comes close to justifying violence on our streets. Given his position, he should withdraw it and apologise.”
Colleagues of O’Connell’s at Croydon Town Hall felt his remarks had “echoes of the political street fights in Weimar Germany”, when Brown Shirt thugs were let loose on opponents with the tacit approval of Nazi politicians, in a campaign of intimidation.
“It’s unworthy of a mainstream political party and it will be interesting to see whether O’Connell’s Tory leader on the council, Tim Pollard, gets him to apologise unreservedly.”
After Copley’s intervention online on Sunday, O’Connell started to back down.
O’Connell claimed his original tweet had in some way been “misconstrued”. “I fear people’s response if they feel disenfranchised, as should we all, that’s all,” O’Connell wrote.
When challenged again that his comments had blamed the marchers and not those who attacked them, O’Connell wrote, “If that was an impression given, the point was missed… So I apologise.”
O’Connell once made headlines as the country’s most overpaid local councillor, who was so greedy that even £100,000 per year in public payments was not enough. O’Connell took his hand out of the cookie jar just in time to avoid being caught up in Croydon Tories’ #WadGate scandal four years ago.
Election defeats have seen O’Connell’s allowances reduced more recently, though he still receives £17,986 per year from Croydon Council, in addition to his £56.270 salary as a London Assembly Member, plus other expenses and benefits.
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