Tory chairman calls on Boris Johnson to apologise for burka remarks

Backbench Tory MP Boris Johnson

Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis has called on Boris Johnson to apologise for comments he made about Muslim women wearing burkas.

The call followed a hail of criticism for Mr Johnson's remarks, which were described as "offensive" by Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt and "bigotry" by former Tory chair Baroness Warsi.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, the former foreign secretary described the burka as "ridiculous" and "weird" and said women wearing them looked like letter-boxes or bank robbers.

While agreeing with Mr Johnson that the burka should not be banned, Mr Burt told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I would never have made such a comment, I think there is a degree of offence in that, absolutely right."

And Baroness Warsi accused Mr Johnson of adopting the "dog whistle" tactics of former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon in the hope of attracting support from right-wing Tories for an eventual leadership bid.

Repeating her call for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi told Channel 4 News: "Muslim women should not be a useful political battleground for Old Etonians.

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"It is crass and it must stop, and it must be condemned by the leadership right from the prime minister down."

In a message on Twitter, Mr Lewis said: "I agree with Alistair Burt. I have asked Boris Johnson to apologise."

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But Conservative MP and hard line Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen said Mr Johnson did not need to apologise.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme the former foreign secretary had been trying to raise the subject in a "lighthearted way".

"I think if you can get your point across with a little bit of humour it's very much appreciated by the public," he added.

"Boris is seen as a clear challenger for the leadership in due course and it's interesting the characters, Alistair Burt, love him to bits, and the party chairman, and we all know which side they are batting on."

Mr Bridgen said the former Cabinet minister had taken a "part-time job to write thoughtful columns" for The Daily Telegraph.

"Given the amount of publicity this column has got today, and we are talking about it now, I should think he's earnt his crust for the Telegraph by delivering an issue, which I think given Boris's personality and charisma he can deal with and I think it is an issue we need to speak about."

Lord Sheikh, founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, set up to encourage British Muslims to get involved in political life, said Mr Johnson's comments had been "totally out of order".

He told The World At One: "It is not in good fun. It's a joke but in very, very bad taste.

"A joke like this will harm the community relations."

He added: "I don't know whether this is his agenda to get the leadership of the Conservative party.

"Is he using Muslims as a springboard?"

Naz Shah, shadow equalities minister, said: "An apology isn't good enough. Boris Johnson's comments weren't accidental, they were a calculated attack in a national newspaper, made weeks after he reportedly met with Steve Bannon.

"I suggested to Brandon Lewis yesterday that the former foreign secretary needs to attend training and engagement with the Muslim community for Muslims to have any faith that the Conservative Party is taking this issue seriously.

"Clearly the Tory party has an issue with Islamophobia, but over 24 hours later the Prime Minister is still yet to say a word.

"Theresa May must condemn Boris Johnson's comments unequivocally and order an inquiry into Islamophobia in her party."

The Muslim Council of Britain said Mr Johnson's "intentional usage of the words" contained in his national newspaper column appeared to be an attempt to "pander to the far right".

It said the Tory chairman's demands for an apology were "right as a minimum" but insisted the party "must now respond to previously ignored calls for action".

In a statement, the council said Mr Johnson had a history of making "Islamophobic comments".

It called on the Conservatives to answer a series of questions, including whether the party expected Mr Johnson to cover other controversial remarks about Islam in any apology and if he faces the threat of the withdrawal of the Tory whip.

The council also asked if Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who backed a ban on the burka, would be spoken to by the party chairman.

It suggested the party should instigate an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.

"It is now widely acknowledged that the Conservative Party has a poor relationship with Britain's Muslim communities," it added.

A source close to Mr Johnson said: "It is ridiculous that these views are being attacked - we must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues.

"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."

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