Top Tories Fear ‘Nasty’ Image After Boris Johnson’s Burqa Jibe

(Bloomberg) -- Senior Conservatives are once again battling against accusations of bigotry in Britain’s ruling party, after the outspoken former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson mocked the Islamic burqa and then refused to apologize.

Even as he argued against a ban on the burqa, worn by some Muslim women to conceal their face and body, Johnson said it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” and that face coverings made the wearer resemble a “bank robber.”

The comments in Johnson’s Telegraph newspaper column triggered a fresh row over the Tory party’s commitment to equality and inclusiveness. It’s just months since the so-called Windrush affair, when it emerged immigrants with the right to live in the U.K. had been deprived of benefits or even deported. The scandal reached Prime Minister Theresa May, who some lawmakers blamed for introducing a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants as home secretary from 2010 to 2016.

May, who famously said in a 2002 speech that the public considered the Tories to be the “nasty party,” called on Johnson to apologize. “It’s very clear that that language that Boris used has offended people,” she said.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright on Wednesday urged Johnson to choose his words more carefully, while Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood warned on Twitter that the comments put the Tories’ reputation at risk: “Now more than ever, we must communicate the integrity and inclusiveness of the Conservative Party,” he wrote.

Leadership Ambitions

Since he resigned in protest at May’s Brexit plans last month, Johnson has been touted as a potential prime minister by those in the Conservative Party who want a harder departure from the European Union. But others see his comments as an example of why he would be a poor candidate.

Mohamed Sheikh, a member of the House of Lords and founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, called for Johnson to be kicked out of the party. “Take the whip from him. Why not?” he told the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ program on Tuesday. “He’s not a super human being, he’s a member of the party.”

Dominic Grieve, a leading pro-European lawmaker, said he’d quit the Conservative Party if Johnson becomes leader, saying he was embarrassed by the comments and doesn’t “regard him as a fit and proper person” to lead any political party.

“If he were to become leader of the party, I for one wouldn’t be in it,” Grieve, a former attorney general, said in a interview with BBC Radio. “He seems to me to pursue an agenda which is entirely self-referential, doesn’t take account of colleagues, he wasn’t able to observe cabinet responsibility when he was in government.”

But Eric Pickles, a former communities secretary, said it was “pretty much inconceivable” that Johnson he would be thrown out -- though he also criticized Johnson’s language, which he said went against efforts to make Muslim people feel British and improve cultural integration in the U.K.

“I don’t believe that my party does have a problem with Islamophobia,” he told the BBC. “I do believe my party has been slow in making contact and keeping alive the friendship with the Muslim community.”

Even so, Johnson’s remarks were “trivial” compared to the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech by former Tory lawmaker Enoch Powell 50 years ago which incited racial hatred, Pickles said.

‘Weird and Bullying’

Johnson has declined to comment, but a person familiar with his views said on Tuesday he was speaking up for liberal values and stood by his words. In his column, Johnson wrote that it was “weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces.”

Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party is facing more accusations of antisemitism that make it difficult for it to capitalize on the furor surrounding the Tories.

The latest spat was triggered by Labour’s decision not to adopt in full an internationally recognized definition of antisemitism, dropping specific examples referring to Israel. That sparked criticism from Labour lawmakers and prominent Jewish newspapers.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn was forced to apologize, saying the party has a “real problem” with antisemitism and pledging to “root” it out.

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