Boris Johnson mysteriously decided to update the House of Commons on the fight against Islamic State today, even though everyone else was talking about another aspect of the Foreign Secretary’s job. He decided to include the row over his comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in this statement, presumably to take some of the heat out of the row. His other tactic in trying to reduce the row further was to accuse anyone who attacked him for his blunder in which he told the Foreign Affairs Committee last week that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalism of playing party politics. On the opposite benches, it wasn’t just Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry who mooted Johnson losing his job: Yvette Cooper, Wes Streeting and Ian Murray were among Labour MPs who asked why he was still in the role. Lib Dem Jo Swinson also told him that if he won’t read his briefing notes properly, then he should resign. Anna Soubry, who has already attacked the Foreign Secretary for his behaviour, reminded him of the importance of doing his job. There were a few mildly supportive Tory MPs, such as Nusrat Ghani and Nadhim Zahawi, but overall Johnson received quite a drubbing.
His tone was poor, too. He said he accepted he could have been clearer in his words to the Committee, but did not directly apologise, despite being told to do so repeatedly throughout the session. He told one MP that ‘I’m sorry if any words of mine’ had been taken out of context. ‘I’m sorry if’ is one of those non-apology apologies that involves someone apologising not on their own behalf for what they actually said but on the behalf of those who have committed the real offence of listening to what they said. In the spectrum of meanings of the word ‘sorry’ in Britain, it is next to the ‘sorry!’ that someone says to a person who has just pushed into them on the street: more of an angry instruction to someone else that they should apologise.
On our podcast today, James argues that there is a serious problem with the tactics of those like Emily Thornberry who have said that if Zaghari-Ratcliffe is jailed as a result of these comments, then the Foreign Secretary should resign. Comments like that do further politicise the situation, as it adds an incentive for anyone who might want to cause trouble for the British government. But at the same time, Johnson’s defence that his critics are in ‘cloud cuckoo land’ and this is all the fault of the Iranians (it is of course their fault for detaining Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but it remains his fault for making comments which a regime could use in such a way) just isn’t right. It’s not just those in other parties who are furious with Boris. One senior Tory I spoke to after the statement described the Foreign Secretary as having ‘no dignity and integrity’, adding that ‘anyone extending the separation of a mother from her child for even a day would have resigned for having, even in error, extended the detention for even an hour’. Some of Johnson’s colleagues have long held concerns about whether he applies the necessary seriousness to his office. It seems as though more of them are reaching the conclusion that this terrible blunder proves that he is not.