Twenty two of Boris Johnson’s biggest gaffes from letterbox burqas to hiding in fridge

A look back at some notorious moments from the ‘greased piglet’s’ storied career

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 23 January 2023 15:26 GMT
Boris Johnson's most memorable moments

Boris Johnson may have been ousted as prime minister last summer after three tumultuous years in powerbut he is never far from the headlines.

The Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP has since been banished to the backbenches, for now at least, but has kept busy on the after-dinner speech circuit and has already made at least one prospective bid to return to No 10 following the ousting of Liz Truss in October, which brought him racing back from a Caribbean holiday to sound out support.

Many on the right of the Conservative Party, not least his adoring former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, continued to dream of his return to the hot seat in place of Rishi Sunak in time for the next election and Mr Johnson has himself refused to rule out some form of politcal “comeback” in future.

He has often been compared superficially to disgraced ex-US president Donald Trump, who is likewise plotting a return to the White House after being unceremoniously outed.

And like Mr Trump, Mr Johnson’s political career to date has been littered with gaffes, some more catastrophic than others.

From individuals to entire cities and even counties, the overgrown Etonian schoolboy and Bullingdon veteran has offended many during his time in the public eye.

Here,The Independent looks back at just some of Mr Johnson’s most damaging and humiliating blunders.

1. ‘Let the bodies pile high’

Mr Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings claimed that as Covid-19 spread across the country during the pandemic, the PM had said “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” rather than have a third lockdown.

A spokesperson for the Labour Party said at the time: “If this report is true, then these are truly shocking and sickening comments.”

“It is hard to imagine how families who have lost loved ones to Covid will feel reading them. Boris Johnson must make a public statement as soon as possible in his response to this report.”

Boris Johnson was known for gaffes before he became prime minister - and they just kept coming (AFP/Getty)

2. Business chiefs lectured on Peppa Pig theme park

The ex-PM was left floundering when he lost his place in a high-profile speech to business leaders at the CBI’s annual conference– and resorted to talking about the Peppa Pig World theme park.

Mr Johnson was rendered speechless for 20 seconds as he searched through his text, muttering “forgive me, forgive me”.

In the same calamitous speech to the conference, he compared himself to Moses, made “vroom, vroom” noises, cracked risque jokes, stumbled over his words, fell silent for almost half a minute after losing his place and asked the executives to raise their hands if they had visited the children’s adventure park.

Few admitted to having done so.

At Peppa Pig World with wife Carrie (Reuters)

3. Sleeping at climate summit

Political opponents and climate campaigners were angry when Mr Johnson was pictured with his eyes closed during the opening ceremony of the Cop26 climate talks.

He was seated between UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and legendary BBC naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

A No 10 source said it was “total nonsense” to suggest Mr Johnson had been asleep.

4. ‘Slip of the tongue’ on Iranian detention

During a 2017 select committee hearing, the then-foreign secretary erroneously said Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was involved in training journalists in the region.

Following Mr Johnson’s comments, the 38-year-old Briton was hauled in front of an Iranian court and told her sentence could double.

He later faced calls to resign and issued an apology 12 days after his remarks.

She was finally released and allowed to return to her long-suffering family in 2022.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, pictured at RAF Brize Norton following her release from Iran, was hauled into court after Mr Johnson’s comment (PA)

5. ‘Casual’ rule-breaking over finances

Mr Johnson broke Commons rules by failing to declare a financial interest in a property within the time limit.

The Commons Standards Committee accused him in April 2019 of displaying “an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House”.

The ruling came just four months after the MP was made to apologise for breaching the rules by failing to declare more than £52,000 of outside earnings.

6. Hiding in a fridge to avoid TV reporter

Mr Johnson once hid in a fridge while being pursued by a TV reporter attempting to interview him on the eve of the 2019 general election.

The PM was joining an early morning milk round in Leeds when he was confronted by Good Morning Britain’s Jonathan Swain about his “promise to talk to Piers [Morgan] and Susanna [Reid]”.

“I’ll be with you in a second,” Mr Johnson replied, before escaping into a large fridge.

In a video of the incident, one of the PM’s aides can be seen mouthing “oh for f***’s sake” after seeing Swain approaching the group.

Boris Johnson's minder swears at reporter live on tv as PM's team whisk him off into a giant fridge

7. Insulting niqab wearers as ‘letterboxes’

Theresa May publicly rebuked Mr Johnson in August 2019 after he compared women wearing burqas and niqabs to letter boxes.

In a column for The Daily Telegraph – a weekly commitment that earned him £275,000 a year – Mr Johnson described the garments as oppressive, adding it was “absolutely ridiculous” that people should “choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.

He said some restrictions on wearing them were “sensible” but that he opposed a Denmark-style full ban in public places and claimed: “One day, I am sure, they will go.”

He wrote: “If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled… to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly.

“If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct,” he wrote.

8. ‘Clearing dead bodies’ in Libya to make way for resort

At the Conservative Party conference in October 2017, Mr Johnson was widely condemned after claiming the Libyan city of Sirte would have a bright future as a luxury resort once investors “cleared the dead bodies away”.

Asked about a recent visit to Libya, where fighting still continues eight years after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, he praised the “incredible country” with “bone-white sands”.

He added: “There’s a group of UK business people, some wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte on the coast, near where Gaddafi was captured and executed.

“They have got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai. The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.”

Mr Johnson’s commnets about Islamic dress attracted criticism before he was PM

9. Describing Africa as ‘that country’

Reflecting on his first three months in the job at the Tories’ 2016 conference, Mr Johnson referred to Africa as “that country” while painting the world a “less safe, more dangerous and more worrying” place than it had been a decade prior.

Mr Johnson appeared to suggest the continent could benefit from adopting more British values, warning that a number of leaders were instead becoming more authoritarian.

He then said: “Life expectancy in Africa has risen astonishingly as that country has entered the global economic system.”

10. Losing the no-deal argument on Brexit

A second showing for Mr Johnson’sTelegraph column.

In April 2019, the Independent Press Standards Organisation said the ex-foreign secretary had breached accuracy rules by claiming that polls showed a no-deal Brexit was more popular “by some margin” than Ms May’s deal or staying in the EU.

The paper argued it was “clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters” but the watchdog ruled against it.

11. Accusing Liverpool of ‘wallowing in victim status’

Back in 2004, Mr Johnson was forced to apologise to a whole city after printing an editorial about Liverpool.

The Spectator piece claimed Liverpudlians had “an excessive predilection for welfarism”.

“They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it,” the piece continued.

He was chastised by Conservative leader Michael Howard, who was urged to sack the-then shadow arts minister for the comments.

12. Boasting about Johnnie Walker in a Sikh Temple

While foreign secretary he was berated at a Sikh temple in Bristol for talking about increasing whisky exports to India – despite alcohol being forbidden in the Sikh faith.

“I hope I’m not embarrassing anybody here by saying that when we go to India, we have to bring ‘clinky’ in our luggage,” he said in 2017. “We have to bring Johnnie Walker.”

A BBC recording captured a female worshipper asking him: “How dare you talk about alcohol in a Sikh temple?”

Then then-foreign secretary was criticised by a ‘livid’ audience after promoting alcohol

13. Don’t mention the war

During a visit to India early in 2017, Mr Johnson appeared to accuse the EU of wanting to inflict Nazi-style “punishment beatings” on the UK because of Brexit.

He said: “If [former French president Francois] Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie, I don’t think that is the way forward, and it’s not in the interests of our friends and partners.

“It seems absolutely incredible to me that, in the 21st century, member states of the EU should be seriously contemplating the reintroduction of tariffs or whatever to administer punishment to the UK.”

14. Prosecco row bubbles over

In November 2016, Mr Johnson was mocked by European ministers following a bizarre argument about whose country would sell more prosecco or fish and chips post-Brexit.

Italy’s economic minister Carlo Calenda said Mr Johnson’s approach appeared to be based on “wishful thinking”.

“He basically said: ‘I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market,’” Mr Calenda told Bloomberg. “I said: ‘No way.’ He said: ‘You’ll sell less prosecco.’ I said: ‘OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ Putting things on this level is a bit insulting.”

The row took place after Mr Johnson described suggestions that free movement of people was among the EU’s founding principles as “b*******”.

Italian economic development minister Carlo Calenda said the argument was ‘insulting’

15. ‘Bikey’ goes missing

Mr Johnson appeared to be caught out during the Tory leadership campaign after being asked at a hustings event when he had last cried.

He claimed it was when his beloved bicycle was stolen from outside Parliament, saying he had used the vehicle, named “Bikey”, for the entirety of his eight years as mayor of London.

He said: “It was never nicked during all my time as mayor and I used to chain it up across the whole city. Barely had [his successor as mayor] Sadiq Khan’s reign begun before it was nicked.”

He added: “Anyone who has something they love stolen feels a sense of outrage and injustice. That’s another reason we need more police on the streets.”

However, the claim appeared to unravel when an article emerged from 2014, in which Mr Johnson described how “Bikey” had been written off after a crash. The bike's frame had snapped after he rode it into a pothole concealed by a puddle during a storm, he said.

Given the article dated from 2014, it appeared to contradict his claim that "Bikey" had been used throughout his time at City Hall, which ended in 2016 and had been stolen years later, after Mr Khan took office.

16. Smoke me a kipper

Mr Johnson raised eyebrows at the last hustings of the leadership contest after brandishing a smoked kipper on stage.

He waved the fish during a rant about “pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging” EU regulations, claiming that Brussels bureaucracy had "massively" increased costs for fish suppliers because of rules saying that their products must be transported in ice.

However, it later emerged that the regulations had, in fact, been introduced by the UK government, not by the EU.

Holding a kipper at the final hustings of the Conservative leadership campaign in July, 2019 (Getty)

17. Domestic strife

Mr Johnson’s leadership bid got off to a rocky start after reports emerged of a major row between the MP and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, now his wife.

An audio recording leaked to the media appeared to reveal Ms Symonds telling Mr Johnson to get off her and repeatedly telling him to “get out of my flat”.

The candidate and his team faced a flurry of questions over the incident, but the next day photos emerged showing the seemingly happy couple enjoying some relaxing time in the countryside, suggesting they had reconciled.

However, eagle-eyed observers were quick to point out that Mr Johnson’s hair looked significantly longer than it had the previous day – suggesting that, rather than having been snapped that day, the photo had actually been taken some time ago.

18. ‘Backie’ backlash

A blast from the past. While mayor of London, Mr Johnson was filmed breaking the law by giving his then-wife Marina Wheeler a lift on the back of his bike.

National cycling charity CTC said he “should have known better”.

Mr Johnson apologised through a spokesman after it emerged he had breached Section 24 of the Road and Traffic Act 1998. Offenders can ordinarily expect a £200 fine for committing the error.

Mr Johnson’s premiership has come to an end after three years in the job (No 10 Downing Street)

19. Money spent on child abuse probes ‘spaffed up the wall’

In 2019, he again sparked outrage after claiming money spent investigating historic child sexual abuse had been “spaffed up the wall”.

During a radio interview, Mr Johnson argued that money spent on investigating historic crimes would be better channelled into boosting police numbers, in the wake of a spate of fatal stabbings.

Shadow policing minister Louise Haigh said his comments were inappropriate and offensive to victims’ families, branding him a “shameless, dangerous oaf”.

20. Dismissing £250,000 a year newspaper column as ‘chicken feed’

In 2009, the then-London mayor described his quarter of a million pound earnings from writing for The Telegraph as “chicken feed”.

Mr Johnson insisted it was “wholly reasonable” for him to write newspaper columns on the side because he did them “very fast”.

At the time, he was already earning £140,000 for his day job as many Londoners struggle from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.

21. Tone deafness, colonial-style

Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar had to stop Mr Johnson as he recited a Rudyard Kipling poem in the country’s most sacred temple.

The poem is written through the eyes of a retired British serviceman in what was then known as Burma, which Britain ruled between 1824 and 1948 and also references kissing a local girl.

Mr Johnson had also referred to a golden statue in the Shwedagon Padoga temple as a “very big guinea pig” shortly before launching into verse.

As he recited the poem video showed the British ambassador to the country, Andrew Patrick, growing visibly tense. When the then-foreign secretary reached the poem’s third line – “the wind is in the palm trees... the temple bells they say” – Mr Patrick decided to interject.

“You’re on-mic,” he said. “Probably not a good idea.”

Mr Johnson replied: “What, The Road to Mandalay?”

“No,” the ambassador said. “Not appropriate.”

22. The BBC chairman and a mysterious loan

Most recently, in January 2023, media reports alleged that BBC chairman Richard Sharp, who had been appointed during Mr Johnson’s tenure as PM, had helped him arrange a guarantor on a loan of up to £800,000 in late 2020.

Mr Sharp duly announced that he had requested a scrutiny panel to examine potential conflicts of interest.

“This is a load of complete nonsense – absolute nonsense,” Mr Johnson responded when asked about it by Sky News.

“Let me just tell you, Richard Sharp is a good and wise man but he knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for 100 per cent ding dang sure. This is just another example of the BBC disappearing up its own fundament.”

As soon as the story broke, the former PM made one of his customary visits to Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, a gesture of solidarity he seems increasingly inclined to make whenever his reputation at home threatens to be tarnished.

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