Boris Johnson burqa probe sparks Tory civil war
A civil war has exploded in the Conservative party after bosses launched a probe into Boris Johnson’s remarks about burqas.
One Tory MP said the move was a “kneecap job” by party chair Brandon Lewis against the former foreign secretary, while another said a full investigation would be “perverse and bizarre”.
Mr Lewis yesterday announced that the comments made by Mr Johnson in a column for the Telegraph would be examined with a view to launching a full investigation.
The ex-Cabinet minister sparked fury when he said women who wear burqas looked like “post boxes” and “bank robbers” - despite arguing against a ban on full face veils.
Theresa May has ordered the Uxbridge MP to apologise, while a Tory peer said he should be stripped of the whip and Muslim women protested in his constituency.
Conservative HQ is said to have received dozens of complaints about the comments, but Tory MPs have lashed out at the decision to begin a formal investigatory process.
One told the Telegraph: "This is a complete own goal by Brandon Lewis. To anyone objective, it looks like a crude and unprincipled kneecap job on the favourite to succeed Theresa May.
"In the process he has managed to turn a minor story into a five-day frenzy of virtue signalling nonsense. Brandon needs to close this down or he won't last as party chairman."
Conor Burns, a Tory MP and ally of Mr Johnson, told the paper: "It would be perverse and bizarre were the party to launch a formal investigation.
"When we have reached the stage when you cannot express an opinion it is a rum do in the party of freedom.
"What should have been a 24-hour news story has dragged on for the best part of a week and is damaging the party."
Pro-Brexit bigwig Jacob Rees-Mogg meanwhile told LBC radio it was “not the job of the Prime Minister to tell backbenchers what to do”.
He added: “We are not bound by collective responsibility or that type of discipline and it is the wrong approach to party discipline.”
Conservative former vice chair Ben Bradley questioned how the party could launch a probe when the comments "are in a national newspaper", adding: "What evidence are they going to gather?"
He said: “My constituents who broadly agree with Boris are going to wonder why the party are now investigating him.”
However a source close to Mr Lewis defended the decision, telling the Telegraph: “It is not personal and it has nothing to do with Brexit, it is simply the same rules that apply to everyone in the party.
“It is not unusual for the chairman not to be involved in code of conduct complaints involving MPs.”
Former chief whip Andrew Mitchell warned the party to “be careful” in its handling of the furore, telling BBC Newsnight and said it must not “go over the top” on an issue surrounding free speech.
BLACKADDER WEIGHS IN
Meanwhile, Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson waded into the debate to defend the former London mayor, saying it was a “pretty good” joke and urging him not to apologise.
“All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them,” he said in a letter to the Times.
'GENIE OUT THE BOTTLE'
But Lord Sheikh, who called for Mr Johnson to be stripped of the Tory whip, revealed he had received some 75 emails saying “horrible things, obscene things, about the Prophet Muhammad”.
He told BBC Newsnight the ex-Cabinet minister had “let the genie out of the bottle” with his comments.
100 British Muslim women who wear a burqa or niqab have written to Mr Lewis saying an apology from the MP would be “insufficient” and calling for him to be kicked out of the party.
In the letter, seen by Sky News, they accused Mr Johnson of making a “deliberate choice” to “inflame tensions in a way that makes it easier for bigots to justify hate crime against us”.