Boris Johnson had to be summoned to the Commons by an urgent question from Labour, but when he got there, he did eventually apologise for his blunder in which he had told MPs that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been visiting Iran in a professional capacity to teach journalism. The Foreign Secretary was in far less bullish a mood than he was a week ago when he answered questions on the matter, telling MPs that: ‘I apologise to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I had inadvertently caused them any further anguish’; he later added: ‘I do apologise, I do apologise and of course I retract any suggestion that she was there in a professional capacity’.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) November 13, 2017
He took a while, though, to respond fully to demands from Labour MPs to admit that he got it wrong, merely arguing ‘that was my mistake: I should have been clearer’, before later telling Kevin Brennan that he was ‘wrong’ to have said what he did.
James has previously pointed out on Coffee House that while Johnson blundered when he spoke to the Foreign Affairs Committee about the case, it is unwise of his critics to link his job security so strongly to the decision the Iranians will take about Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Today, Emily Thornberry, who had asked the urgent question, said she agreed with the Foreign Secretary that the responsibility for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment lay with the Iranian regime, but she and other MPs from the opposition benches argued that Johnson had failed to help the family as they fought that imprisonment, instead making things much worse.
What was interesting, though, was that Tory MPs seemed much more comfortable with making this argument than they had been a week ago. Members such as Julian Lewis and Hugo Swire told the Chamber that they and colleagues must recognise that the Iranian regime was responsible for this case. Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tughendhat, who has been very critical of Johnson, welcomed the statement and also warned against using the case as a political football.
This makes it seem as though some of the political heat from Johnson’s remarks has cooled. But what’s important now is that Johnson is able to demonstrate that he is engaging fully in the efforts to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe and is happy to continue to correct the record, should there be further statements from Iran about his own comments. He told the Chamber today that he is meeting Richard Ratcliffe later this week and that he will travel to Iran later this year to ‘review the full state of our bilateral relations’. Even if Johnson deserves to lose his job for making such a terrible blunder, removing this as a question until Zachary-Ratcliffe is free is surely the best strategy.