Johnson sparks diplomatic row over 'cannibalism' gibe

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After grovelling to the people of Liverpool and muttering excuses for a messy extra-marital affair, the Tory MP Boris Johnson has added the people of Papua New Guinea to his long list of public mea culpas.

The gaffe-prone shadow Higher Education minister was forced to issue an apology after he suggested in a newspaper column that the inhabitants of the Pacific island nation indulged in "cannibalism and chief-killing".

Mr Johnson, the MP for Henley, has made a habit of appearing more often in the headlines for backfiring witticisms than for his political philosophy. But his latest blunder threatened to snowball into a full-blown diplomatic incident after the country's high commissioner passed on the comments to her prime minister and demanded an apology.

Mr Johnson, who was once voted the Tory party's third best-known politician largely due to his appearances on the TV quiz show Have I Got News For You, displayed his talent for turning a political assault into self-defeat while ruminating over the Labour Party leadership crisis in the pages of The Daily Telegraph.

The Old Etonian MP wrote: "For 10 years, we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party."

The government of Papua New Guinea, which has a population of five million and a burgeoning tourism industry, insisted that while cannibalism was once practised on the island, it was stamped out 200 years ago with the arrival of European settlers.

Jean L Kekedo, the country's high commissioner in London, said: "I consider the comments, coming from a senior British MP, very damaging to the image of Papua New Guinea and an insult to the integrity and intelligence of all Papua New Guineans.

"How far removed and ill-informed can Mr Johnson be from the reality of the situation in modern-day Papua New Guinea?"

Explaining her shock that such remarks could come from a "seemingly well-educated person of very high standing", Ms Kekedo added: "I strongly urge that the Hon Johnson apologise or retract his reference to Papua New Guinea.

"The country has nothing to do with British domestic politics."

The blunder by the mop-haired MP and former editor of The Spectator is the latest in an ignominious history of bloopers. Critics of his bumbling, scatty manner have suggested his penchant for gaffes makes him more a liability than an asset to his party.

On one edition of Have I Got News For You, the regular panellist Paul Merton observed: "Boris Johnson is the person to lead this country back into the 17th century."

Mr Johnson was ordered to make a contrite visit to Liverpool in 2004 by the former party leader Michael Howard after an editorial in The Spectator described the city as "wallowing in victimhood" after the kidnap and murder in Iraq of the British hostage Ken Bigley, a Liverpudlian.

Mr Johnson, who did not write the unattributed article but said he took responsibility as editor, defended its central theory that high-profile deaths, such as that of Mr Bigley or Diana, Princess of Wales, were over-sentimentalised but agreed it had been "too trenchant".

Within a month, Mr Johnson was sacked from his post as shadow Arts minister over claims that he lied about his affair with The Spectator's former deputy editor Petronella Wyatt. Mr Howard dismissed Mr Johnson after he described revelations about the relationship as "an inverted pyramid of piffle".

The chastened MP last night acted quickly to apologise for any offence caused by his comment - before then appearing to suggest that he believed they were true in the first place.

He said: "I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea, who I'm sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.

"My remarks were inspired by a Time Life book I have which does indeed show relatively recent photos of Papua New Guinean tribes engaged in warfare, and I'm fairly certain that cannibalism was involved.

"I'd be happy to show the book to the high commissioner but I'm of course also very happy to take up her kind invite and add Papua Guinea to my global itinerary of apology."

Boris and his gaffes

* On Liverpool: "[Liverpudlians] cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance about the rest of society." (Spectator article for which he said he took responsibility).

* On allegations that he had an affair with Petronella Wyatt: "An inverted pyramid of piffle."

* On the railways: "To rely on a train in Blair's Britain is to engage in a crapshoot with the devil."

* On his appointment as shadow arts minister: "Look the point is ... er, what is the point? It's a tough job and somebody has got to do it."

* On the Conservative leadership contest: "I am supporting David Cameron purely out of cynical self-interest."

* On voting Conservative: "Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3."

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