In Depth

Should Boris Johnson say sorry for burka comments?

Top Tories including PM have criticised ex-foreign secretary for saying Muslim women resemble letter boxes and bank robbers

Boris Johnson faces an investigation by the Conservative Party over his comment about the burka, following formal complaints that he breached the party's code of conduct.

Tory Chairman Brandon Lewis “will appoint three people to an investigating panel - including a Tory MP who sits on the 1922 committee - to carry out the investigation”, reports The Daily Telegraph.

The panel will decide whether to refer Johnson to the party's board. Possible action “includes suspension of membership or expulsion from the party among other things”, says the BBC

Johnson used his column in the Telegraph on Monday to criticise, what he called, the “oppressive” burka.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” he wrote.

The former foreign secretary added: “If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto.”

However, he argued against imposing a ban on face-covering veils in public places, saying that Denmark’s recent introduction of fines for wearing the burka or niqab in the streets was “a bit extreme”.

Top Tories, including Prime Minister Theresa May, have criticised Johnson for his derogatory burka comments and asked him to apologise.

Why has Johnson been asked to apologise?

The prime minister told reporters that she agreed with Lewis’s call, saying that “some of the terms Boris used describing people’s appearance obviously have offended” and people need to be “careful” with language.

May was “perhaps relieved she no longer has to bite her tongue when asked about her erstwhile cabinet colleague”, says The Times.

Johnson had already been criticism by a number of Tory politicians and Muslim groups for his comments, which “some claimed were designed to pander to right-wing voters to bolster his future leadership chances”, says The Guardian.

Former Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi, who has accused Johnson of “dog-whistle” Islamophobia, told Sky News: “Boris knew what he was doing when he made those comments... I think Boris is making yet another leadership bid and he will do and say whatever needs to be done to make that as successful as he can.”

Critics have also highlighted Johnson’s recent meeting with former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who told a far-right French crowd in March: “Let them call you racist... Wear it as a badge of honour. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”

So will he say sorry?

According to insiders close to Johnson, he has no intention of apologising and insists that he was making a liberal case against imposing a burka ban.

A source told the BBC that it was “ridiculous” to attack the former minister’s views.

“We must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues,” the insider added. “We have to call it out. If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we are simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists.”

Right-wing commentator Tim Montgomerie was among those to tweet his support for Johnson, saying: “I hope Boris doesn’t apologise. The time wasted on people being offended for no good reason is time not spent tackling real problems.”

What will happen next?

Senior Tories have told The Sun the former foreign secretary could in fact sue the party over the disciplinary hearing. 

As it is up to Lewis to appoint the disciplinary panel, they claim both the PM and Lewis have “prejudiced” any investigation by claiming publicly that Johnson’s remarks were “offensive”.

One told The Sun: “They have been tactically stupid.”

There is a growing sense that “a confrontation is being forced between those in the party who think the way Johnson described women who wear a niqab was out of order and those who think it was fair comment”, says The Times.

But it’s also “impossible to ignore the fact that pretty much all the senior Tories who have criticised Johnson so far” voted Remain in the EU referendum and that those lining up to defend him “are largely Brexiteers”, says Politico.

That makes it “hard to see this row other than through the prism of a much bigger dispute about the direction in which the Conservative Party, and the country, are headed this autumn”, the news site adds. Both sides of the Tory party are gunning for the other - and “this will be a fight to the death”.

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