Britain’s Prime Minister has rebuked her former top diplomat — and a potential leadership challenger — for insulting remarks he made about Muslim women wearing burqas.
Theresa May called out former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over the comments, in which he compared women who choose to wear the conservative Islamic dress to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.”
Johnson was earlier told to apologize by Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis for the remarks. He has yet to do so.
“It is very clear that the language that Boris Johnson used to describe people’s appearance has caused offense,” May said. “It’s not language I would have used and I think he was wrong to have used that language, and I agree with Brandon Lewis.”
Sayeeda Warsi, a former foreign secretary under David Cameron who has long been a critic of Islamophobia within the Tory party, said this week that Muslim women “should not be a political football to increase your popularity ratings amongst the Tory faithful.”
A Conservative member of the House of Lords, Warsi has repeatedly called for a full inquiry into Islamophobia within the party, similar to the extensive one being undertaken by the opposition Labour Party after allegations of antisemitism within the party’s ranks.
Islamaphobia ‘no longer’ fringe
The Tories, as the ruling Conservative party is known, have also been criticized by members of the UK’s Muslim community, including by Mohammed Mahmoud, a London Iman praised as a hero after stopping violence in the wake of an attack on Finsbury Park mosque.
“Islamophobia no longer simmers under the surface of the fringes of society,” Mahmoud wrote this week in the British press. “Yet, despite the rising scale and severity of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, the response from the Government has been lackluster, or worse, in denial.”
Labour shadow equalities minister Naz Shah reiterated Mahmoud’s comments in a letter to her government counterpart and Lewis, adding that Johnson’s comments were “particularly troubling in light of the revelations (he) has recently been communicating with Steve Bannon.”
The far-right political operator and former Trump administration official praised Johnson in several interviews during a visit to the UK last month, and also met privately with the former foreign minister, according to Buzzfeed News.
That revelation came as Bannon continues to increase his involvement in British politics, coming out in support of far-right anti-Islam figure Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.
Robinson founded the English Defence League in 2009, and was recently jailed for breaking court reporting laws. He was released a week ago after an appeals judge found his sentence to have been too harsh.
He has become something of a cause celebre for the right in the UK and beyond, with even a US State Department official, Sam Brownback, raising Robinson’s case in a meeting with the British ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch.
While Johnson has not publicly supported the far-right figure, his comments about burqas cap a sustained shift further to the right of British politics for an MP once best known for appearing on comedy panel shows and making offensive gaffes, including racist comments.
Leading Brexit figure
Johnson led the official campaign to leave the European Union, and has been praised by anti-Europe figures on the right, including former United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage and Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of the hardline Brexit European Research Group.
Support from the Tory right helped him return to frontline politics following the extended political bloodletting in the wake of the Brexit vote and Cameron’s resignation. Johnson staged an unsuccessful bid for the leadership that ultimately helped clear the decks for May, who made him her foreign secretary.
Seen by many as a way to keep her chief rival where she could see him, May and Johnson clashed repeatedly over Brexit and other issues, culminating in his eventual resignation last month, after accusing her of formulating a Brexit plan amounting to leaving the UK in “the status of colony” to the EU.
Johnson’s move, which followed the resignation of Brexit secretary David Davis and several other lower ranking ministers, significantly weakened May and led to speculation of an imminent leadership challenge.
While that challenge has not yet come, Johnson is still widely seen as one of the strongest candidates to succeed May, and one whose political ambitions have yet to be sated.
Warsi said Johnson’s comments were “yet another bid” for the Tory leadership, adding that “sadly, it appears that within my party, when parliamentarians make such comments it doesn’t diminish their political status, it actually increases their political success.”