By Jason Farrell, Senior Political Correspondent, and David Mercer, News Reporter
MPs from across the political spectrum have condemned “thuggish” protesters who confronted Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg at a university debate.
Police are investigating the incident at the University of West England (UWE) in Bristol after video footage showed the Brexiteer involved in a scuffle as he tried to defuse a fight.
One witness said the masked demonstrators hurled abuse at Mr Rees-Mogg, calling him a “Nazi,” a “fascist and a racist”, after they allegedly broke into the lecture theatre.
A string of politicians have denounced the protesters’ actions.
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said he was “extremely disappointed that a genuine opportunity to engage in debate was nearly thwarted by thuggish behaviour”.
“Free speech under the law is fundamental to our democracy. Well done @Jacob_Rees_Mogg for not being cowed into silence.”
Extremely disappointed that a genuine opportunity to engage in debate was nearly thwarted by thuggish behaviour. Free speech under the law is fundamental to our democracy. Well done @Jacob_Rees_Mogg for not be cowed into silence.
— Sam Gyimah MP (@SamGyimah) February 2, 2018
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said she “utterly” condemned the behaviour of those “who tried to attack (Mr Rees-Mogg) whilst he was due to speak at an event he was invited to”.
“It’s extremely intimidating for any MP who travels alone to an event to be treated like this,” she said.
My politics are not those of @Jacob_Rees_Mogg however l utterly condemn the behaviour of those tonight who tried to attack him whilst he was due to speak at an event he was invited to. It’s extremely intimidating for any MP who travels alone to an event to be treated like this 👎
— Angela Rayner (@AngelaRayner) February 2, 2018
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, tweeted: “This is appalling. No excuse for violence and aggression like this.”
Brendan Cox, whose wife Jo, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016, said the incident was “absolutely disgraceful”.
“Those who try and deny elected representatives the chance to speak attack democracy itself,” he tweeted.
He added later: “These masked shouty people have achieved the achievable; uniting the country in sympathy for Jacob Rees-Mogg. Complete plonkers.”
Mr Rees-Mogg – who is believed to have arrived at the event without security – sought to play down the fracas, describing himself as “a weed”.
He told Sky News: “All it was was a handful of shouty people who wanted to disrupt a public meeting I was about to address. It was not really a fight, just noisy.”
He added: “They did not want me to have a platform and were not willing to discuss any specific concerns.
“I didn’t want people to be hit and no one seemed likely to hit me but I am a weed.”
In a statement, UWE Bristol said it was “absolutely appalled by the conduct of a small number of attendees”.
“It is our understanding at this stage that a small group of protesters broke into the lecture theatre where the event was due to take place via the back doors,” it said.
“The police were called and our security attended.
“We understand that these protesters were not UWE Bristol students and did not have tickets for the event.”
Avon and Somerset Police appealed for anyone to come forward with mobile phone footage to help the inquiry.
The force said in a statement: “We were called to the University of the West of England’s Frenchay campus at about 6.30pm today following a report of a public order incident.
“No arrests were made and an investigation is under way to see if any criminal offences were committed.”