The Conservatives were accused of failing to take a zero tolerance approach to violence against women on Friday night, after a prominent MP escaped disciplinary action for saying that he would like to punch a woman’s throat.
Michael Fabricant was widely condemned and faced calls to resign his seat after the abusive tweet targeted at Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
His message set off a string of abusive and threatening tweets directed against the journalist from some other male users of the website.
While David Cameron described Mr Fabricant’s remarks as “completely unacceptable”, he resisted calls to suspend the MP.
Mr Fabricant, a former Conservative party vice-chairman, posted the tweet after watching Ms Alibhai-Brown take part in a heated studio debate. He wrote that if he were to appear on television with her, “I would either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by punching her in the throat”.
Initially, the MP reacted to the outrage caused by his tweet by treating it as a joke.
When a television crew appeared at his door, he boasted: “This is the first time I’ve ever been doorstepped! I feel like a star!”
He also tweeted a message directly to Ms Alibhai-Brown, saying: “If you actually thought I would punch you, I actually don’t do that sort of thing. But you are utterly infuriating!”
But the MP for Lichfield in Staffordshire changed his tone after Downing Street intervened. He was contacted by the Conservative whips office and given what was described by party sources as a “stern talking to”. He then posted a tweet admitting that it was wrong to “joke” about punching someone. He added: “I completely withdraw and apologise.”
This was enough for Mr Cameron to hope the controversy would die down quickly. The Prime Minister told LBC: “The action that needed to be taken was a swift retraction and a full apology and now that retraction and apology have been properly delivered, I think further action isn’t necessary. But no-one should be in any doubt that it’s just not an acceptable thing to say. Michael Fabricant knows that that is my view and I don’t want to see this happen again.”
But writing for The Independent, Ms Alibhai-Brown said that she did not believe that the original tweet was meant as a joke, but was written because the Tory MP was angry to hear a woman from an ethnic minority expressing forceful opinions.
“Note that he said he wanted to smash my throat: it is my voice he wants to shut off,” she claimed.
Ms Alibhai-Brown was given police protection several years ago because of threats levelled at her. In 2010, a Tory councillor in Birmingham, Gareth Compton, was suspended from the party and arrested after tweeting a suggestion that she should be stoned to death.
“I have had horrible stuff coming at me all day, from guys who think it is okay now, because an MP started it,” Ms Alibhai-Brown added.
Mr Fabricant’s tweet was widely condemned. Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Fabricant’s tweet is appalling. Cameron needs to set out what action he will take.”
Shadow Women’s Minister Gloria de Piero said: “Such an appalling threat of violence isn’t something you hear very often, but uttered by a fellow MP it beggars belief.”
Holly Dustin, director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, said: “Michael Fabricant’s threat of violence towards Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is utterly disgraceful. Let’s not forget this is an elected politician who makes laws in this country on women’s safety and equality.”
Mr Fabricant has courted controversy via Twitter before. When the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, was forced to resign in April, he tweeted “about time” – and was sacked from his position as a party vice-chairman.
Last year, he took part in a demonstration in his Lichfield constituency against violence against women. Yesterday, he posted a photograph of himself taken at the demonstration, in which he was wearing a pink shirt and trousers and had a pink boa draped around his neck, and was holding a placard saying: “Real men don’t hit women.”