In Depth

Boris Johnson’s biggest gaffes

Tory leadership front-runner facing ridicule over conflicting statements on his alleged cocaine use

Boris Johnson is in the firing line once again after dodging questions about whether he has used cocaine, despite having previously admitting doing so.

The gaffe-prone Tory MP is one of several Conservative leadership contenders facing scrutiny over their suspected consumption of illegal drugs, following revelations that candidate Michael Gove used cocaine more than two decades ago.

The Independent reports that Johnson has previously admitted using cocaine as a 19-year-old, although he “also claimed he had not actually snorted the drug, in a separate interview”.

During a 2005 appearance on the BBC’s satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You, Johnson joked: “I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.”

This week, the former London mayor refused to comment on his conflicting statements about the class A drug, despite being pressed by reporters. 

“I think the canonical account of this event when I was 19 has appeared many times and I think what most people in this country really want us to focus on is what we can do for them and what our plans are for this great country of ours,” Johnson insisted at his official leadership campaign launch event.

His comments have prompted widespread criticism, with Piers Morgan asking why Gove’s campaign has been almost totally derailed by drug use allegations, while Johnson appears relatively unscathed.

Yet this is hardly the first time that Johnson has skirted disaster, says ABC News, which notes that the former foreign secretary’s “unconventional style” has “helped him shrug off a series of scandals in the past”. Here are some of his most controversial gaffes:

Erdogan limerick

In May 2016, Johnson was named winner of a write-in competition held by The Spectator, which challenged readers to compose “offensive” poems about hard-line Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Johnson, who had previously served as editor of the magazine, claimed victory - and £1,000 in prize money - with the following limerick:

“There was a young fellow from Ankara

Who was a terrific wankerer

Till he sowed his wild oats

With the help of a goat

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.”

However, while the poem amused many, it proved “a bit awkward” to explain away following his appointment as foreign secretary in 2016, notes The Independent.


Perhaps Johnson’s most offensive misstep came in an article that he penned for The Daily Telegraph in 2002, in which he took aim at then-PM Tony Blair’s regular state visits to former British colonies.

In a now-notorious passage, Johnson, then MP for Henley, claimed that the Queen had “come to love the Commonwealth” because it “supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”. 

“Piccaninny” is a historical racial slur for a black or dark-skinned child and has long been deemed offensive.

He continued: “They say [Blair] is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”

When confronted about the article during his first campaign to become London mayor, Johnson claimed that the comments had been “taken out of context” and were meant to satirise colonial attitudes, Business Insider reports.

Papua New Guinea

Four years after the furore over his “piccaninnies” article, another of Johnson’s literary efforts provoked further accusations of racism.

Commenting on squabbling by opposition MPs at that time, in his regular column for The Daily Telegraph, he said: “For ten years we in the Tory party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party.”

The remarks were condemned by Papua New Guinea’s high commissioner in London, Jean L. Kekedo, who said she was “shocked and appalled”.

She added: “How far removed and ill-informed can Mr Johnson be from the reality of the situation in modern-day Papua New Guinea?”

Yet despite Johnson’s tongue-in-cheek pledge to add the country’s people to his “global itinerary of apology”, his subsequent comments about the spat suggested his remorse was less than genuine. 

“I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea, who I'm sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity,” he said. “My remarks were inspired by a Time Life book I have which does indeed show relatively recent photos of Papua New Guinean tribes engaged in warfare, and I'm fairly certain that cannibalism was involved.”

Letterbox women

Johnson got into yet more trouble through his Telegraph column in August 2018,  after penning an article in which he compared veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes”. 

In the article, Johnson said he felt “fully entitled” to expect Muslim women to remove full-face coverings when talking to him at his MP’s surgery, and suggested that schools and universities should be able to take the same approach if a student “turns up ... looking like a bank robber”.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes,” he added.

Following a public outcry, Theresa May, Tory party chair Brandon Lewis and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson all called on Johnson to apologise. However, Johnson was cleared of breaching the Conservative Party’s code of conduct.

And he appeared unrepentant when challenged over the row by reporters this week, telling supporters at his campaign launch that the public want to hear what politicians “genuinely think”.


Arguably Johnson’s most serious blunder was in 2017, during his reign as foreign secretary, when discussing the case of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been in prison in Iran since 2016.

London resident Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been visiting family in Iran with her young daughter when she was detained by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The charity worker was subsequently convicted of spying and sentenced to five years. 

Tehran prosecutors claimed that she had run “a BBC Persian online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran” - an allegation that she and her legal team insist is untrue.

However, Johnson’s decision to weigh into the saga proved a costly one after he contradicted Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s story by claiming that was “simply teaching people journalism” in Tehran. Iran pounced on the comments, citing them as proof that she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime”,  prompting UK media to condemn Johnson for having “complicated her legal case”, as The Guardian put it.

Johnson later admitted he “could have been clearer” in his comments, which left Zaghari-Ratcliffe facing the threat of her sentence being extended to ten years. She remains in custody in Iran.

The Road to Mandalay

Another of Johnson’s gaffes as foreign secretary occurred during a 2017 trip to Myanmar - formerly Burma. After being invited into the sacred Buddhist temple of Shwedagon Pagoda, in capital Yangon, Johnson first referred to a holy statue as “very big guinea pig” and then began reciting Rudyard Kipling’s The Road to Mandalay.

The colonial-era poem is written through the eyes of a retired British serviceman in the country, which Britain ruled between 1824 and 1948, and also references kissing a local girl, The Independent reports.

British ambassador Andrew Patrick was caught on video looking tense before jumping in to halt Johnson before he could get to a line about a “Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd” - an offensive reference to the Buddha.

“You’re on-mic,” Patrick said. “Probably not a good idea.”

Johnson replied: “What, The Road to Mandalay?”

“No,” the diplomat insisted. “Not appropriate.”

Child abuse

Johnson courted controversy yet again earlier this year, when he claiming that government money spent on historical child abuse investigations had been “spaffed up a wall”.

The outspoken Tory, who was appearing on an LBC radio phone-in show, faced “immediate criticism from Labour for making reckless and inappropriate comments”, The Guardian reports.

Shadow policing minister Louise Haigh asked: “Could you look the victims [of abuse] in the eye and tell them investigating and bringing to justice those who abused them, as children, is a waste of money?” 


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