The tributes over, MPs on both sides of the house rose to applaud Jo Cox. Moments later, up in the gallery, her sister Kim stood to clap both Jo and the MPs who had honoured her memory so movingly.
One by one the rest of her family joined in. First her mother, then her father and finally her husband Brendan and their two children, Cuillin and Lejla. There were more tears, more smiles and the occasional wave down to friends as the MPs walked out of the Commons to attend a service of thanksgiving across the road at St Margaret’s church on Westminster Square.
Finally the chamber was empty, except for the white and red roses that had been placed in Jo’s usual seat on the opposition benches. White for Yorkshire, red for Labour. The Commons officials came in to tidy the papers on the dispatch box and make sure no one had left anything behind, but no one touched the roses. It was the most poignant of moments in a heartbreaking session. The roses were going nowhere. Neither was Jo. She might never be returning to the house, but she was also never going to be leaving it. Something of her would survive. Not nearly enough, but something.
As Jeremy Corbyn opened the speeches with a measured tribute that concentrated mainly on Jo the Labour MP, a child’s voice interrupted the Labour leader, bringing the personal agonisingly into the room. It was Lejla talking to her dad, too young to take in exactly what was happening and yet more than old enough to perfectly articulate how so many people were feeling. In the midst of so much silence, everyone craved noise. Anything was preferable to the unbearable emptiness. Yet the chatter was also a reminder of how much had been lost. Not just a promising young MP and lifelong campaigner for the dispossessed, but a mother, wife, daughter and sister.
The personal and political might often have been one and the same thing for Jo, but the personal was where the pain was most felt, something later acknowledged by MPs on both sides of the house. Politicians might not have covered themselves in glory during the referendum campaign, but here was a reminder of their intrinsic humanity. If only it hadn’t taken the killing of one of their own for some of them to show it. David Cameron’s voice broke as he recalled how he had first met Jo when she was working in the refugee camps of Darfur. The prime minister may have his faults, but he understands loss.
It was all too much for Rachel Reeves, who had been Jo’s friend and mentor. She had begun by talking of boozy nights on her houseboat before moving on to the role model she had been for other women and the sense of a potential unfulfilled, but she cracked when she came to the children. “No one can replace a mother,” she said, in tears, overwhelmed by a sense of identification.
The Conservative MPs Andrew Mitchell and Cheryl Gillan spoke of Jo’s humanitarian work, but most of the speakers were understandably friends and colleagues on the Labour benches. Fellow Yorkshire MPs Holly Lynch and Barry Sheerman talked of her commitment to her constituency of Batley and Spen, and Stephen Doughty reminded everyone that she had a bit of edge to her. “She told me I was being far too touchy-feely in one meeting,” he recalled. “And she could make herself a right royal pain in the backside.” This wasn’t parliament going through the motions of paying its respects to one of its own as sometimes happens. It was real and heartfelt. Jo may have only been an MP for little more than a year, but she had touched people’s lives.
Time and again, speakers referred back to her maiden speech, in which she had declared “we have more in common than that which divides us”. But only Labour’s Stephen Kinnock dared make the connection that others had been careful to avoid. After picking out “the calculated cynicism” of Nigel Farage’s poster launch on the day of her death, he went to add that “childish rhetoric has consequences”. Fatal ones.
Several Vote Leave MPs didn’t look best pleased to have the referendum linked to Jo’s death, but now was not the time or place to say so. They would have to sit and take it. As a wholehearted believer in the EU, Jo would probably have enjoyed their discomfort. The longer the tributes went on, the more a three-dimensional Jo began to take shape. A proper human being. Committed, passionate and complicated in equal measure. By the end it was almost possible to imagine her sitting there wondering what all the fuss was about. Except she wasn’t. There were just two roses.
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