Theresa May visited Scotland on Tuesday to hold Brexit talks with Nicola Sturgeon. Not that you would know this from reading today’s papers as they are all about Boris Johnson. The Boris and the burka row rumbles on for a third day – after the former foreign secretary refused to apologise for his comments on Monday comparing muslim women dressed in the full veil to ‘letterboxes’. Although Johnson not apologising is in some ways unsurprising, what’s driving the news is the number of his former Cabinet colleagues who have called on him to do so.
After Tory chairman Brandon Lewis took to social media to say that he had asked Johnson to apologise, Theresa May used a television to say that she agreed with hr chairman as ‘some of the terms Boris used in describing people’s appearance obviously have offended people’. That list is growing this morning with Defence minister Tobias Elwood joining the calls along with Jeremy Wright. It’s also been noted that a lot of Remain Tory rebels have been quick to pile in. There have also been calls for Johnson to have the whip removed – though this seems incredibly unlikely and no MP has suggested this.
The BoJo camp have been quick to slap down such calls. A source close to Boris Johnson has said he was speaking up for liberal values and the right to debate difficult issues must not be shut down:
‘If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we are simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists. It is ridiculous that these views are being attacked – we must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues.’
So, how will this play out? There have been suggestions that this could be a ‘dead cat strategy’ by Johnson. He will have known that his colourful language would get people talking. Although there has been a lot of outrage, it’s not clear that this will damage Johnson’s standing among his supporters. A YouGov poll in 2016 found that 57pc of Britons want the burka banned in public compared to just 25pc against. When you narrow that group to just Conservative voters, support for a burka ban is at 66pc.
Now Johnson has made clear that he does not support a burka ban. The whole point of his Telegraph column was to argue that although he has many quibbles with the full veil, he didn’t think the UK should follow Denmark and other European countries in banning it as he was uncomfortable with the idea of the state telling a ‘free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear, in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business’. That view in theory puts him at odds with over half the population.
There’s also another factor in all this. With Boris on the backbench, his leadership chances have risen significantly as he has enjoyed an increase in popularity with the Tory grassroots for rejecting May’s Chequers proposal. Through this row, we have another dividing line in a future leadership contest. The incident might not work out as CCHQ wants it to.