Conservative leadership hopeful Boris Johnson has defended his infamous description of black people in Africa bearing “watermelon smiles” as satire.
The frontrunner to be Britain’s next prime minister was asked about a 2002 column for The Daily Telegraph in which he used the racist phrase.
When reminded of his remark on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, the Tory candidate said he had used the term “in a wholly satirical way”.
Asked whether he would “say anything to get a laugh”, Mr Johnson responded: “If you look at each and every one of those columns and articles, you’ll find the quotations have been wrenched out of context, in many cases made to mean the opposite of what was intended.”
Mr Johnson’s notorious column – in which he also used the racist term “piccaninnies” – was an attempt to attack then-prime minister Tony Blair and his apparent ability to charm foreign leaders on trips abroad.
Writing about a prospective trip by Mr Blair to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mr Johnson stated: “No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”
The same column includes the line: “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.”
Following his claim his remarks were satirical, Dawn Butler MP, Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, said: “Boris Johnson’s defence of his racist and homophobic comments is despicable and disappointing … He is not fit to be prime minister of our country.”
Mr Johnson previously apologised for the 2002 comments while running for mayor of London in 2008. Without claiming then that he had been attempting satire, he did claim his words had been taken out of context.
“I do feel very sad that people have been so offended by these words and I’m sorry that I’ve caused this offence,” he said. “But if you look at the article as written they really do not bear the construction that you’re putting on them.”
Last year Mr Johnson was cleared of breaching the Conservative Party’s code of conduct by comparing veiled Muslim women to letter boxes and bank robbers.
Describing the veil as “oppressive”, Mr Johnson wrote in an August 2018 Telegraph column that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.
An independent panel investigating the comments decided he had been “respectful and tolerant” and was entitled to use “satire” in his articles.
The panel found that his language could be considered “provocative” but claimed it would be “unwise to censor excessively the language of party representatives or the use of satire to emphasise a viewpoint, particularly a viewpoint that is not subject to criticism”.
In the same Sunday morning interview, Mr Johnson admitted he feels a “deep sense of anguish” over the case of jailed British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but said responsibility lies with the Iranian revolutionary guard.
“I do feel a deep sense of anguish about it as I have said and I have apologised several times in the House of Commons and elsewhere,” he said. “But it is very very important that in this conversation we don’t allow whatever I may have said or done to cloud the issue.”