Boris Johnson insisted today that critics of his comments about IQ had chosen to ‘wilfully misconstrue what I said’. He told LBC radio this morning that ‘what I was saying actually is that there is too much inequality, and my speech was actually a warning, as correctly reported by many newspapers, actually a warning against letting this thing go unchecked. Because if you look at what’s happened in the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a widening in income between rich and poor – there’s no question about that.’ He also managed to fail an IQ test, which was an inevitable consequence of this whole debacle.
But Labour is keen to use the Mayor’s comments as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives as a whole. Tristram Hunt today shoehorned it into his response to the PISA rankings, asking Michael Gove the following:
‘Will he use this opportunity to join the Deputy Prime Minister and me in condemning the unpleasant whiff of eugenics from the Mayor of London and instead use the opportunity provided by the PISA data to pursue excellence for all, academic and vocational, in all our schools?’
Gove did not take the opportunity to say anything about Boris’ comments, and his Conservative colleagues have taken great care to distance themselves from the Mayor. Yesterday David Cameron said he would ‘leave Boris to talk for Boris’, while George Osborne told Marr ‘I wouldn’t have put it like that and I don’t agree with everything he said’. Ken Clarke has been the most outspoken supporter, telling ITV’s The Agenda last night that ‘he was talking about the need to have more social mobility, and he was talking about the need to have more equality of opportunity, and it was just the usual rubbish that they [the media] took a phrase out of a speech’.
This is not so much about whether Boris was right or not. The question now is whether he has seriously damaged his chances of one day leading the Conservative party. He has a tendency to recover from episodes of poor judgement where other politicians might founder. But perhaps his speech had the fatal flaw of too much flourish and not enough preparation. The Mayor also has a tendency to rely on the former to get him through a lack of the latter at the last minute. If he wants to safeguard his chances of running for Tory leader, he would do well to sit on potentially controversial passages of speeches for a few days before delivering them, so that he has a chance to notice mines buried beneath the surface before they explode into a row. That so few of his colleagues in the party are prepared to even attempt an explanation of what the Mayor was trying to say should be a warning sign for Boris.