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Boris Johnson faces stinging attack over ‘derogatory, racist and Islamophobic’ remarks, prompting rare applause in parliament

Sikh Labour MP demands apology from prime minister for ‘hurt’ caused to Muslim women by his infamous ‘letter box’ comments

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 04 September 2019 13:09 BST
Boris Johnson called a racist by Labour's Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi in powerful speech on Islamophobia

A Labour MP was applauded at prime minister’s questions after delivering a passionate condemnation of Boris Johnson’s “racist” comparison of burqa-wearing Muslim women to bank robbers and letter boxes.

Slough MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi demanded an apology for comments in a newspaper article that had caused “hurt” to vulnerable women and resulted in a spike in hate crime.

But Mr Johnson declined to apologise, insisting that his remarks had come as part of a “strong liberal defence of everybody’s right to wear whatever they want”.

Mr Dhesi, a Sikh who wears a turban, said he was used to being on the receiving end of insults like “towelhead”, similar to the “divisive” language used by Mr Johnson.

Confronting Mr Johnson at his first session of PMQs since becoming prime minister, Mr Dhesi asked: “If I decide to wear a turban or you decide to wear a cross or he decides to wear a kippah or skullcap or she decides to wear a hijab or burqa, does that mean it is open season for right honourable members of this house to make derogatory and divisive remarks about our appearance?

“For those of us who from a young age have had to endure and put up with being called names such as towelhead or Taliban or coming from Bongo Bongo Land, we can appreciate the hurt and pain felt by already vulnerable Muslim women when they are described as looking like bank robbers and letter boxes.

“Rather than hide behind sham and whitewash investigations, when will the prime minister finally apologise for his derogatory and racist remarks which have led to a spike in hate crimes?”

Recalling that Mr Johnson had assented to chancellor Sajid Javid’s call for an independent investigation into Tory Islamophobia during a televised leadership debate, Mr Dhesi asked: “When will the prime minister finally order an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, something which he and his chancellor promised on national television?”

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi berates Boris Johnson (Getty)

A report earlier this week found that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375 per cent in the period following Mr Johnson’s comments about veiled women.

Monitoring group Tell Mama said the Daily Telegraph column was followed by the biggest spike in anti-Muslim hatred in 2018, with 42 per cent of offline Islamophobic incidents reported directly referencing Mr Johnson or his comments.

Saying that he spoke as “somebody who is not only proud to have Muslim ancestors but to be related to Sikhs”, the prime minister told MPs: “Under this government we have the most diverse cabinet in the history of this country.”

Dodging Mr Dhesi’s demand for an apology, he continued: “What we have yet to hear from anywhere in the Labour Party is any hint of apology for the virus of antisemitism that is now rampant in their ranks. I would like to hear that.”

Mr Dhesi said the response was “pathetic” and demanded the prime minister be held to account for his “incendiary language”.

Speaking to the BBC afterwards, he said: “There are many women out there who wear a burqa or a hijab and when somebody who’s a former mayor of London, a former foreign secretary, no less than the prime minister, when someone like that says something – that’s why I said it led to such a huge rise in hate crime.

“But he still didn’t apologise.”

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson denounced the PM’s response as “appalling”, telling MPs: “An apology is what is required, rather than some kind of justification that there is ever any acceptable excuse for the remarks he made in that column.”

And Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, tweeted: “Well said, Tan Dhesi.”

John Bercow, the speaker, ticked off MPs for their applause, which is very rare in the House of Commons.

“If the house were to want, as a matter of course, to allow clapping by a decision of the house, so be it, but it should not otherwise become a regular practice,” he said.

Mr Johnson joked in reply that he was “used to breasting applause from Labour audiences”.

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