Murder of young British MP Jo Cox has shocked nation into Brexit realities

The vivacious young woman in the video below has passed on. Mother of two, Jo Cox was the victim of the first murder of a British member of Parliament in more than a quarter century – stabbed and shot in the street while encouraging her constituents to keep the UK inside the European Union. Her death has shocked the nation of 64 million people set to vote for a potentially historic decision on Thursday. Until yesterday, the campaign had been feisty, even a little acrimonious. It has now become sombre, which, given the recent events and potential impact of the vote, is rather rational. – Alec Hogg

By Kate Allen and Henry Mance in London and Andrew Bounds in Leeds

The fatal shooting of a British MP has shocked the country’s political establishment, bringing an abrupt halt to the increasingly heated campaign for next week’s referendum on UK membership of the EU.

Jo Cox, aged 41, a supporter of the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, was shot and stabbed several times in her constituency town of Birstall, near Leeds in northern England, on Thursday lunchtime outside a local library where she had been meeting residents.

Her killing was condemned by politicians stunned by the violence. Both the Remain and Leave sides immediately suspended campaigning. Prime Minister David Cameron cancelled an appearance at a Remain rally in Gibraltar, saying: “It’s right that we are suspending campaigning activity in this referendum and everyone’s thoughts will be with Jo’s family and her constituents at this terrible time.”

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Ms Cox was a former policy chief at the international charity Oxfam. She was elected to parliament as a Labour MP for the Batley and Spen constituency last year and was a vocal advocate for the victims of the civil war in Syria.

Her husband Brendan and two small children took part in a high-profile pro-EU flotilla on the river Thames the day before the shooting.

Mr Cox called on everyone “to fight against the hatred that killed her”. He said she had fought for a better world “every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people”.

A 52-year-old local man was arrested following the attack, police said. Last night, police were searching the home of Thomas Mair, a resident of the nearby Fieldhead Estate.

Police said they were still investigating a motive for the attack. Neighbours said he was a quiet man who was friendly but appeared to be a loner.

Local media said witnesses reported that the man shouted “Britain first” during the attack, but that was unconfirmed. One witness, café owner Clarke Rothwell, later told the BBC that the attacker had shouted “Britain first” or “put Britain first”.

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Britain First, a far-right political party campaigning for Brexit, said the reports were “pure hearsay”. It described the attack as a “despicable crime” and added: “We are nothing to do with it.”

Ms Cox had been the subject of a series of security threats as an MP but there was no indication that those were connected to the attack on Thursday.

The question of Britain’s future relationship with the EU has gripped the nation ahead of the June 23 referendum, with passions riding high on both sides. Polls suggest the Leave campaign has swung into the lead in recent days.

Mr Cameron had been planning to launch a fightback by becoming the first prime minister for four decades to visit Gibraltar on Thursday afternoon, aiming to rouse patriotic sentiment in favour of Britain remaining in the EU.

He said of Ms Cox: “She was a star for her constituents, a star in parliament and a star right across the House.”

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Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, commenting because of Mr Cameron’s Gibraltar plans, linked the attack to recent terrorist acts in the US, France and Belgium. “Free countries, western countries, countries that defend people’s rights and freedoms should work together more closely, more actively, and co-operate [to prevent such acts],” he said.

Former London mayor Boris Johnson, a leader of the Leave campaign, called off a battle bus tour for the Leave campaign after hearing of Ms Cox’s shooting, which he said was “absolutely horrific”.

Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister who had worked closely with Ms Cox, said her death was a “devastating blow for democracy”. He added: “She went to some of the most dangerous places in the world. The last place she should have been in danger was in her home town.”

London’s Lord Mayor decided to go ahead with the annual Mansion House dinner for City grandees on Thursday evening at which chancellor George Osborne had been expected to make a strong appeal for a vote to remain in the EU. But he ripped up his planned speech and instead paid tribute to Ms Cox.

Ms Cox had been holding a meeting with constituents when she became involved in an altercation in the street near the town’s library.

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Witness Hichem ben Abdallah told the Press Association newswire that he saw the assailant kicking Ms Cox “as she was lying on the floor”. After a bystander intervened the attacker produced a gun and shot the MP, Mr ben Abdallah said.

A 77-year-old man also sustained non-life threatening injuries in a subsequent attack, police said.

Some MPs have privately expressed concern for their physical safety while doing their jobs, fearing that their accessibility to the public makes them a potential target.

Ms Cox is the third MP to be seriously attacked in recent years.

Former government minister Stephen Timms suffered life-threatening injuries in 2010 when he was stabbed twice with a kitchen knife by an Islamic extremist, while in 2000 Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones was injured and his assistant Andy Pennington killed by an attacker armed with a sword.

Both incidents took place at the MPs’ constituency surgeries.

(c) 2016 The Financial Times Ltd.

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