British politics is in a poor state of health, and even the wonderful NHS cannot help it out. The two main parties have symmetrical problems with Islamophobia and antisemitism, and neither have leaders who are up to the job; their parliamentary colleagues openly admit as much but they cannot practically be replaced. Both should be concentrating on Brexit, but have not yet travelled into the zone of reality that would see the UK actually secure a deal with the EU. Both have trouble getting their parties to accept their authority.

Only one party and one leader, however, has Boris Johnson to contend with. Theresa May has endorsed the view of her party chairman, Brandon Lewis, that what Mr Johnson said about the niqab was offensive and he should apologise for it. She has said so on television. She appears sincere. Whatever her own policy failings in the past (not least the Windrush scandal), she has not used such language and doesn’t tell women how to dress. Theresa wants Boris to say sorry.

Mr Johnson, through “sources” and “friends”, has made plain that he has no intention of apologising for what he said. The ball, then, is back in Ms May’s court. Now that Mr Johnson has defied her, what will she do?

She, her party chair and chief whip have a number of options. She could do nothing, and hope the long hot summer will see the problem evaporate. That, though, seems unlikely, given the outrage Mr Johnson has caused, and the sometimes sanctimonious attacks Tories have launched against Jeremy Corbyn’s inaction over Labour’s antisemitism scandal. If Conservative MPs and others demand, rightly, action not words from Mr Corbyn, then Labour is entitled, surely, to expect the same of Ms May?

Mr Johnson showed precious little inclination to respect the prime minister’s authority when he served so uncomfortably in cabinet with her, so there seems even less chance of him agreeing to do so now. So she needs to show some leadership and exercise discipline. It is hardly his first offence and, she may be sure, there will be worse to follow from his regular media appearances and newspaper columns. After all, he receives a substantial fee for his journalism (nothing wrong with that) and will wish to please his employers with some attention-grabbing headlines. That it keeps him in the limelight is a bonus, of course, for him – but not for the Conservatives. He needs to be reminded about the day job.

Taking the Conservative whip away for a period is the obvious next step. Mr Johnson need not be expelled permanently from the party. But he has transgressed, and needs to be taught a lesson both for his actions and for his subsequent impudence to Ms May. Yes, the Conservatives would then lose a nominal single vote in the House of Commons, but Mr Johnson was never going to vote for any of Ms May’s Brexit plans in any case, since he left her government for that very reason, ostensibly. He will rebel whichever label he happens to wear.

Taking the whip away from Mr Johnson, for a time, will allow some space for him to contemplate his words, and for him to consider how he might best serve his country. There is nothing wrong with his blind ambition; the problem is that he would be a poor fit for the nation he seeks to lead. That is not solely a product of his privileged background, or his notoriously slap-dash approach to work, but also of his curiously antique politics, in their way every bit as atavistic as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s, who is at least a more sensitive soul than Mr Johnson.

A wider investigation into grassroots Islamophobia in the Tory Party may also be called for. The party deserves credit for the promotion of Sajid Javid to home secretary, the first politician of Muslim heritage to occupy one of the great offices of state. It deserves credit, too, for making huge strides in its BAME representation in the House of Commons and government. The Conservative Party is no longer full of golf club racist bores – but there is a new problem, identified by Baroness Warsi and Lord Sheikh, of modern Islamophobia. These are the kinds of attitudes that seep across the right of politics, from the reactionary wing of the Tory Party through Ukip and on towards the outer reaches of the EDL and the lunatic fringe.

For now, though, something needs to be done about Boris Johnson. He can say and do what he likes as a journalist, and indeed as an MP. But if he wishes to speak for and represent the Conservative Party and its values, then that is a matter for the party too. At any rate, Mr Johnson has performed one useful function in his remarks about the niqab and the burqa – he has reminded us of how poor a prime minister he would be for multicultural Britain. A period of silence on his part would be most welcome.   


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