Boris Johnson: 15 of the Conservative leader's most calamitous mistakes and gaffes

Taking a look back at ex-foreign secretary's storied career

Jon Sharman,Benjamin Kentish
Tuesday 23 July 2019 12:35
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Boris Johnson's most memorable moments

Boris Johnson, who has won the Conservative leadership contest and will become the next prime minister, possesses a propensity for gaffes which has infuriated his colleagues and former boss, Theresa May.

During his time as foreign secretary they led to repeated calls for his resignation.

Here The Independent looks back at Mr Johnson’s most damaging and humiliating blunders at the helm of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – and beyond.

‘Slip of the tongue’ on Iranian detention

During a 2017 select committee hearing the then-foreign secretary erroneously said Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – still detained in Iran – was training journalists in the region. After 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. But his cabinet colleague Liam Fox had insisted that people should not overreact to “slips of the tongue”.

‘Casual’ rule-breaking

Mr Johnson broke Commons rules by failing to declare a financial interest in a property within the mandated time limit. The Commons Standards Committee accused him of displaying “an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the house”.

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

Crude remarks on child abuse investigations

Comments Mr Johnson made about police probes into historical child abuse allegations during a radio interview sparked immediate condemnation.

He said money spent on the investigations had been “spaffed up the wall” and would have been better used putting officers on the street.

‘Letter box’ comment about niqab wearers

Ms 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 earns him some £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”.

Mr Johnson 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.

Libya ‘dead bodies’ remark

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.”

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.

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

Losing the no-deal argument

A second showing for Mr Johnson’s Telegraph 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 Theresa 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.

Dram drama in Bristol

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.

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

Don’t mention the war

During a visit to India early in 2017 Mr Johnson appeared to accuse the European Union 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.”

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.

Campaigners called the September 2017 gaffe “stunning”. 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.”

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 “bollocks”.

"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.

A fishy business

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.

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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.

An audio recording leaked to the media appeared to reveal Ms Symonds telling Mr Johnson to “get off me” 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.

Mr Johnson repeatedly refused to answer questions about when the photo had been taken, leaving major doubts over whether it was an authentic picture of the couple after their bust-up or a stunt designed to end the furore over the incident.

‘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.

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