Parliament descended into chaos on Wednesday as angry Tory MPs accused Jeremy Corbyn of calling Theresa May a “stupid woman”, which the Labour leader vehemently denied.
The Speaker, John Bercow, struggled to maintain order in the aftermath of prime minister’s questions when Corbyn appeared to mutter the phrase to himself. He later said the phrase was “stupid people”.
The video of the remark, made after May’s final exchange with the Labour leader, spread like wildfire among Tory MPs even as May continued to answer questions in the House of Commons.
As the Tories grew more incensed, several MPs, including the Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, accused Bercow himself of using the same term, prompting an angry backlash from the Speaker.
The video of the exchange, which Bercow said he had not seen, prompted frenzied speculation on social media, including analysis from unexpected quarters.
The deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie was asked by BBC Radio 5 Live to examine the footage and suggested she believed Corbyn had said “stupid woman”. The West Wing actor Rob Lowe, who is deaf in one ear, also tweeted that he believed Corbyn had said “woman”.
In an attempt to restore order as dozens of MPs called points of order after PMQs finished, Bercow said he would review the footage.
Corbyn later returned to the Commons and insisted he had said “stupid people” after May likened Labour’s unwillingness to call a no-confidence vote to a pantomime, saying: “He’s going to put a confidence vote – oh yes he is, oh no he isn’t.”
He said the comment was in response to “those who I believe were trying to turn a debate about a national crisis in this country into pantomime”.
In a statement before Corbyn’s return, Bercow said it was easy to see why people believed Corbyn had used the phrase, but he could not be certain and the Labour leader should be taken at his word.
The issue brought together MPs from across the Conservative party, including critics of May, such as the remainer Anna Soubry, and the staunch Brexiter Mark Francois, who submitted a no-confidence letter last week.
The Conservative vice-chairman Paul Scully raised the matter directly with May during the latter half of PMQs. “This year, when we’ve been celebrating 100 years of women getting the vote, do you think it’s appropriate language to call people a ‘stupid woman’ in this chamber?” he asked.
May initially looked confused but then said all MPs “should be aiming to encourage women to come into this chamber, and to stand in this chamber and should therefore use appropriate language in this chamber when they are referring to female members”.
While May was still in the house, the former Tory chair Patrick McLoughlin asked Bercow to censure Corbyn.
“He muttered words which were quite clearly visible, accusing the prime minister of being a ‘stupid woman’,” he said, as MPs shouted “Shame!” and “Disgrace!”
Bercow insisted he had not witnessed the alleged comment, provoking fury from some MPs, several of whom accused the Speaker himself of using intemperate language.
Leadsom said the Speaker had not apologised for previously calling her a “stupid woman”. Bercow was reported to the standards watchdog over the alleged comments made in May.
“Why it is that when an opposition party member found that you had called me a stupid woman you did not apologise in this chamber?” she said.
To loud shouts of, “Apologise!” from Tory MPs, Bercow said: “I dealt with that matter months ago in remarks that I made to the House of Commons … which requires from the chair today no elaboration whatsoever.”
Bercow said later he had looked at the footage and consulted professional lip-speakers. “It is easy to see why it could be construed as ‘stupid woman’,” he said, adding that that was also the advice of the professionals.
“Nobody can be 100% certain. That includes professional lip-readers. I will naturally take, and would be expected to take, the word of any member. It is reasonable to expect the house to do the same.”
Leadsom said the “country and this house will form their own conclusions” and that she “deeply regrets” Corbyn’s lack of apology.
In one point of order, the Conservative MP Rachel Maclean said: “Read my lips: I do not believe him”, for which she was rebuked by Bercow.
“It is well established that a member is to be taken at his or her word,” Bercow said.
Labour MPs came back to the House to defend Corbyn and decry the state of the debate. Laura Pidcock, who recently returned from maternity leave, said: “I would like to say it was nice to be back. I just wonder what members of the public will draw from the chamber being used in this way?
“I have heard from my constituency office today that residents have had to have parcels delivered today because they cannot afford to buy presents or food, and the chamber being used in this way is absolutely pathetic.”