It's really not so very long ago that Boris Johnson had convinced the nation that he was a charming buffoon – albeit an intelligent one. The dishevelled hair, hands in suit jacket pocket routine, coupled with an ability to use in general speech words that had everyone else reaching for a dictionary, secured him successive terms as London mayor – and helped to win the Brexit referendum too. It also made him a decent host of Have I Got News for You.
Gaffes were made along the way but it was just Boris being Boris – even when he made howlers as foreign secretary they were largely laughed off and forgiven (remember when the British ambassador had to stop him reciting Kipling’s ‘The Road to Mandalay’ on a visit to Myanmar?).
The row caused by his remarks about women who wear burqas and niqabs is surely different, showing as it does a clear degree of deliberation – and a purposeful desire to play the politics of division. Having been called on by the prime minister to say sorry, however, there is little sign that Johnson will back down. “Sources close to” the former minister say the demands for an apology are “ridiculous”.
Certainly, it seems unlikely that an apology will be forthcoming. For one thing, Boris knows he still has considerable support among Tory grassroots – and indeed sections of the public at large – both for the sentiments he shared in his newspaper column and for the notion that calls to recant are simply an expression of “PC gone mad”.
What’s more, any apology would be dismissed by opponents as thoroughly disingenuous – which indeed it would be. After all, his description of burqa-wearing Muslims as being “ridiculous” for “choos[ing] to go around looking like letter boxes” was not an off-the-cuff comment but a carefully constructed depiction in a Telegraph op-ed.
And while Johnson’s defence – as set out by that “close source” – doesn’t bear much scrutiny, it will be lapped up by many on the political right. Indeed, as a standalone expression of liberal, democratic freedom to say that “we must not fall into the trap of shutting down debate on difficult issues” is hard to disagree with. The truth though is that Boris was simply deriding the way a certain category of people dress. It might be OK to debate the theology behind a person’s religiously-motivated choice of clothing; but don’t turn it into name-calling. That itself falls into the very trap Boris’s camp claim now to be warning against.
Not that it matters, perhaps. We have seen how a man can become president of the US on the back of lies and disingenuousness. If Boris has – as reports suggest – been taking tips from Steve Bannon, then we can expect more Trumpist behaviour to come.
The big question then is what Theresa May will – indeed can – do about it. Even when Johnson was a member of the cabinet, the Prime Minister appeared to have little control over her foreign secretary, aware perhaps he was the man most likely to mount a leadership challenge against her.
Now, as an angry and ambitious backbencher – and newspaper columnist – Johnson is even less controllable and arguably even more dangerous as a threat to May. He has, in the final analysis less to lose and more to gain. Still, the PM has a chance to nullify him if she dares – by removing the whip, as Tory peer Lord Sheikh has argued for. That would make any immediate leadership challenge from Boris himself much more complicated. And while it would be a high-stakes move, for those who doubt May’s decisiveness it would be a shot in the arm. (On the other hand, it might deepen already existing splits in the party.)
Would that threat make Johnson blink and make a grudging apology? Even then, it is hard to imagine. At a time when the leadership of the Conservative Party is a poisoned chalice in any case, he may simply think it better to play the long game – and revel in the role of martyr for the time being. That, perhaps, is what the Donald would do.
The rise of Trump and, to an extent, the Brexit saga have reminded the world that there is political mileage in targeting minorities. Johnson, ever the opportunist, seems to be putting the lesson into action. We have been warned.
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