CCHQ and Downing Street have handled the Boris Johnson face veil affair so maladroitly that it is rash to make predictions about what they will do next. Theresa May backed Brandon Lewis’s call for an apology last week. It seems almost inconceivable that he didn’t first run that view past Downing Street. But the steer from Number Ten, while not quite dumping on the Party Chairman, is that Lewis acted off his own bat, and that the Prime Minister duly backed him up.
So the signs are that Downing Street wants to close the controversy down, which a referral to a panel by the investigating officer would scarcely do. The Party’s Code of Conduct is silent about the relationship between this person and the Party hierarchy. On the one hand, he presumably cannot take instruction: that would compromise his independence. On the other, there are always ways and means of letting the Party Chairman’s view be known – this is politics, after all – and the Chairman is the appointee of the Prime Minister.
In short, no-one in this wretched affair will want to climb down – or, more precisely, be seen to climb down. Johnson isn’t in the business of apologising for his column. And Lewis won’t be in the business of apologising for his call for an apology. Meanwhile, the article in question was published a week ago today. The investigating officer will surely want to get a move on. And the Cabinet, Conservative MPs and party activists will want to end the distraction from Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s enmeshment in anti-semitism – to burqa up the whole business, so to speak.
Any clever-clever scheme to ask Johnson to meet formally with outside groups of Muslims, veiled or otherwise, would risk raking up the controversy all over again. He could, though, find a way of sitting down with the Conservative Muslim Forum, whose Chairman, Mohammed Amin, wrote critically about his Telegraph piece on this site yesterday. Perhaps the best face-saving device to hand is for Downing Street to brief that Johnson has been summoned for a chat with the Chief Whip. Pointless? Of course. Unjust? Probably.
But, in the immortal words of Beyond the Fringe, a futile gesture is needed at this stage. Meanwhile, Johnson has sensibly used his Telegraph column today to move the conversation on, and open a second front on stamp duty. We are confident that he would enjoy discussing free speech, religion, jokes, political responsibility, Islamist extremism, journalistic endeavour and letterbox insults against Muslim women with the Chief Whip just as much as the Chief Whip would enjoy discussing them with him.