At their worst, conservatives have four impulses when it comes to British Muslims.  The first, alas, is what might be called the Tommy Robinson tendency, and can be summed up by the thought: they’re all the same – offer them nothing.  This seems to be very much a minority view, thank goodness, though we cannot be sure of the scale.  Which is why we back a formal inquiry by the anti-extremism commissioner into Tory anti-Muslim prejudice.

The second is what might be called, praying in aid an altogether more respectable person, the Sayeeda Warsi standpoint.  Curiously, its starting-point is the same as the Robinson one.  In other words, it holds that public policy should not try to distinguish between different varieties of Islam.  It then draws the opposite conclusion – namely, give any of them what they ask for, pretty much, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

The third is harder to summarise snappily, but one knows it when one sees it.  It is exemplified by a certain sort of Conservative MP whose reaction – if the subject of British Muslims, or Islamist extremism, or both, is raised – is roughly as follows: “my dear boy, this is a difficult subject.  Let’s talk about something less painful.”  The fourth is an unstable and volatile mix of the previous three.

David Cameron did a sturdy job, in office, of by-passing these contradictory urges, and shaping a policy that distinguished between Islam, one of the three great Abrahamic religions, and Islamist extremism, a toxic offshoot of a minority trend within the faith.  The moral of Theresa May’s tilt at Boris Johnson is that confusion is back to haunt the Conservative Party – and at the very top.

The burka and the niqab are expressions of a certain kind of Islamic fundamentalism.  Unlike the hijab, the headscarf that is a feature of mainstream Muslim practice, and worn by million of devout Muslim women worldwide, the niqab and burka cover the face.  They are thus at odds with modern norms about womens’ freedoms – and sometimes associated with views that are at odds not only with social integration but with liberal democracy itself.

This presumably explains why other European countries such as Germany, France and Belgium – nations lauded by our Remainer friends as exemplars of progress, and examples for poor, benighted, Leave-voting Britain to follow – have introduced bans for the face-covering burka and niqab.  Which brings us to Johnson’s recent Daily Telegraph article about whether we should do the same.

The former Foreign Secretary once said that writing a column can be like hurling a brick over a fence, and waiting for the tinkle of broken glass.  By first dangling the prospect of a ban, and then snatching it away again, the piece was designed to match the biggest possible tinkle with the smallest possible breakage.  But that there were any shards at all only highlighted the difference between what columnists and politicians do – conventional ones, anyway.

For while breaking glass is all in a day’s work for journalists, most politicians specialise in papering over the cracks.  They don’t say (as Johnson wrote) that “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.  The column was bound to be flung at Downing Street and CCHQ, complete with accusations of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice.

So what should Number Ten have done?  It isn’t wisdom after the event to suggest roughly as follows.  A) Say that it didn’t agree with Johnson’s illustration, and understood why some people found it offensive.  B) Point out that, none the less, he was making a serious argument – much the same as that put by the author of the Government’s own review into integration.  C) Add that the burqa and niqab aren’t worn by the majority of Muslim women in Britain.

In short: “we don’t agree with the way he put his case, but it is arguable that he had a point”. That would have quelled the controversy within a day outside specialist Islamic media outlets (and the Guardian).  By instead sending out Brandon Lewis to demand an apology, before then making it herself later, the Prime Minister has achieved the following –

Ensured that the row runs on for longer than 24 hours.  Brought Johnson’s column to the attention of many who wouldn’t otherwise have heard of it.  Not satisfied the Muslim organisations that criticise him – since they will always demand more.  Given anti-Muslim bigots an additional opportunity to call for a burka ban.  Let down Muslim activists who courageously campaign against face veils. Risked claims of being motivated by bad blood over Brexit.

Not to mention making Johnson into a bit of a free speech martyr.  All this is obvious enough.  But the real significance of May’s demand for an apology lies deeper.  It suggests that the Government is all at sea.  One day, Ministers will say that “enough is enough” – adding that “some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations” are required.  The next, it will fly from those conversations, and demand apologies from those who begin them, however clumsily.

A campaign is running to drain the anti-semitism that now haunts Labour of its significance, by suggesting that it is paralled by Conservative anti-Muslim prejudice.  The comparison is obviously wide of the mark, since in Labour’s case the rot starts from the head down; on the Tory side, May and other Cabinet members have no history of indulging people and organisations who support terror against Muslims.

All the bungled response to Johnson’s column will achieve is to give that campaign airtime, legs and column inches.  There will be more to follow if the Prime Minister doesn’t carry on where her predecessor left off.  And we can’t help wondering what a possible successor – the tough-minded Sajid Javid – thinks of her handling of the Johnson column.  One thing is certain: no good will come from seeking to wall up “difficult conversations” behind a veil of silence.