Boris Johnson's habit of making ill-considered comments got the better of him yesterday, when he decided to compete with a presenter of the BBC Asian Network over who was the more "ethnic".
Since running for the job of Mayor of London, the Tory MP and columnist has been under attack for an article he wrote in 2002 in which he described black children greeting the Queen as "flag-waving piccaninnies", and for another in which he forecast that when Tony Blair visited Congo "the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles".
Those remarks have drawn accusations of racism, which Mr Johnson countered by revealing that his great grandfather, of whom he said he was "very proud", was Turkish.
During a debate between mayoral candidates, Mr Johnson was asked by the presenter, Nihal Arthanayake, whether he had met his Turkish relatives or kept up any part of his Turkish heritage.
Mr Johnson deftly evaded the question by announcing that he had Turkish cousins living in London. He denied the suggestion put to him that he had only recently uncovered them to help him win the ethnic vote in the 1 May election. "Lots of Turkish relations have been coming and going in our family for a long time," he countered.
When Mr Arthanayake asked him: "Are you down with the ethnics?", Mr Johnson replied: "I'm down with the ethnics. You can't out-ethnic me, Nihal."
Later, he added: "My children are a quarter Indian, so put that in your pipe and smoke it." Mr Arthanayake ended the exchange by saying: "Okay, let's not try to out-brown each other."
Mr Johnson's campaign team claimed that this was all good-natured banter which should not be taken too seriously. Others were less forgiving. "Sitting next to an Asian presenter and saying he can 'out-ethnic' anyone just shows how stupid an intelligent man can be," Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate, said.
Since Mr Johnson entered the mayoral race as Conservative candidate, he has been kept on a tight rein by a highly paid campaign team, though he has occasionally broken loose to make comments that clash with party policy or risk offending key voters – or both.
Yesterday, his team issued a "clarification" after Mr Johnson had announced that he wanted an online referendum in London on the smoking ban in pubs and clubs. The "clarification" said that he would not be lobbying for such a referendum, though he thought that the decision on whether to ban smoking should have been made at a local level.
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