Brendan Cox (Photo: Getty Images)

POLITICS

He once provided hope, but it is only right that Brendan Cox has now resigned

After his wife was murdered, Brendan Cox headed up charities in her name. That sits uneasily beside the fact that many knew he was a morally ambiguous figurehead, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

Brendan Cox is not a saint and he never has been.

That much was known before his wife, the MP Jo Cox, was so tragically murdered. Just under a year earlier, Brendan had resigned from the charity he worked for amid sexual-harassment allegations. He quit Save The Children before the completion of an investigation into claims that he grabbed a female colleague by the throat, held her up against a wall and drunkenly propositioned her.

That fact lingered uneasily in the background even after Jo died and after Brendan issued that extraordinary statement, using his late wife’s argument that we all have more in common than divides us to appeal for calm in a dangerously febrile atmosphere. His past was always there somewhere beneath the natural outpouring of public sympathy for the Cox family in general, and Brendan in particular as the widowed single father of two very small children, and it niggled away behind the creation of the More in Common charitable foundation from which he resigned last week. He was, at best, a somewhat morally ambiguous figurehead and most of Westminster knew that.

But he provided something and stood for something that, in the immediate aftermath of Jo’s death, people badly needed: a sense of hope, a belief that violence doesn’t have to lead to further violence and that even an angry, divided nation could still choose to step back from the brink by conducting its politics in more careful and less inflammatory ways.

It was difficult for most people to hold both ideas – that Brendan Cox had evidently been a force for good after Jo’s death, but that he might also have been a sex pest

And then there was the delicate question of Jo’s two children, who had already suffered enough by losing their mother. It was difficult for most people to hold both ideas – that Brendan Cox had evidently been a force for good after Jo’s death, but that he might also have been a sex pest – equally in balance at all times. And so history began, gradually and almost unwittingly, to be if not erased then to be sidelined.

And one can only imagine how that must have hurt the women on the receiving end of what he now calls “inappropriate” behaviour; the women who reportedly didn’t want to be alone on duty with him, who saw what he now calls “jokey or flirtatious” behaviour as anything but funny. The women who maybe aren’t all that impressed now by his tearful promise to learn from his mistakes, the mistakes nobody really wanted to hear about when he was a national treasure and a guest of the Obamas at the White House and virtually beyond criticism – except by Brexiters furious at being accused of inflaming dangerous tensions with their anti-immigration rhetoric. Even when the Oxfam sex scandal brought sexual exploitation within charities into the spotlight and the Mail on Sunday published a story claiming Brendan Cox had forced himself on a colleague in the US – something he refuted – the response was an online backlash against the newspaper and an uncomfortable shuffling of feet at Westminster.

Yet, a week later, Brendan Cox quit the charities set up in his wife's name, insisting that the allegations were “massively exaggerated”, but that at the root of them “was a sense, which is fair, that I could overstep the line”. And now the focus is on how deeply Save The Children investigated the original allegations, given his longstanding friendship with the charity’s then-chief executive, Justin Forsyth (the Coxes and Forsyth had known each other for years, working together first at Oxfam and then in Downing Street under Gordon Brown). If there was a cover-up, an erasure of awkward truths, it may well have begun before Jo died.

Whatever happens next, Brendan Cox has lost the moral high ground and will serve Jo’s legacy best by retreating into private life and concentrating on bringing up their children. It remains to be seen whether the causes he promoted so ably – liberal values of tolerance and calm understanding, of common humanity and striving always to see the other person’s view – can survive and thrive despite his personal disgrace.

But, by resigning from the More in Common foundation, and handing over to Jo’s sister, Kim, he has at least given it a fighting chance. And, if nothing else, he serves as a reminder to beware the cult of overnight heroes – and to remember that most people are a far more awkward mix of saint and sinner than most of us are comfortable acknowledging.

@gabyhinsliff

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Brendan Cox (Photo: Getty Images)
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Politics
Sexual assault
charity
Gaby Hinsliff

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