“When we receive a formal complaint, we will investigate it in a timely and confidential manner,” Part Two of the Conservative Party’s Code of Conduct declares. Our readers must decide for themselves whether or not whether an inquiry that reports after the best part of six months is timely.
For that is how long it has taken the Party probe into Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph column about the burka, originally reported on August 9, to conclude.
ConservativeHome is told that the former Foreign Secretary was tipped off during the past week that it has cleared him of breaching the code – indeed, his friends say that the report found him “respectful and tolerant” of wearing the burka. The decision appears to have been communicated last Wednesday – the very day that Tory MPs voted in a ballot of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership.
Launched amidst the inevitable blaze of publicity, after Brandon Lewis originally called on Johnson to apologise, the inquiry’s decision has been smuggled out like the fabled thief in the night.
Downing Street and CCHQ realised last summer that the strike from the top on the former Foreign Secretary had caused more trouble to them than it was worth, and was at one point poised to announce that he had been cleared. But it was decided to wait for a better moment, until all the fuss had died down. This is it (more or less).
What of the column itself? In our view, some of its extravagances and orotundities were over the top. Then again, that’s what Johnson gets paid £275,000 a year for by the paper, and you will never see this site knock a journalist’s earning power.
The common sense response from CCHQ would have been to say that the column, though not its terms, had a point – after all, its own integration adviser had made much the same argument – but add that most Muslim women in Britain don’t wear the burka or the niqab. So the former Foreign Secretary’s point really didn’t stretch all that far, at least as far as this country is concerned.
The long and short of it is that the Party hierarchy’s handling of the incident gave Johnson’s column additional readership, made him into a free speech martyr, failed to satisfy his Muslim and other critics (who will now slam the inquiry’s decision)…
…gave anti-Muslim bigots an additional opportunity to call for a burka ban, let down Muslim activists who campaign against face veils, and risked claims of being motivated by bad blood over Brexit. That last consideration was scarcely minimised by the fact that – as we pointed out at the time – his ultimate judges would be Lewis and possibly Theresa May herself.
The very next day, the Party Chairman recused himself from elements of the inquiry. The code empowers him to appoint the investigating panel of any inquiry and sometimes to rule on its findings – a classic illustration in this case of the law of unexpected consequences.
In the wake of the terror attack on London Bridge, the Prime Minister said that “enough is enough”, and went on to range more widely, saying that dealing with extremism would require some “difficult and often embarrassing conversations”. “We need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom,” she added.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of the Johnson burka controversy is that the Government’s enthusiasm for participating in such conversations appears to be extremely limited.