Ever since Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, it was generally assumed that there would — in time — be a dramatic clash with Theresa May. But it was thought that the Prime Minister would pick her battle over a point of principle, perhaps on Europe, rather than over a joke in his Daily Telegraph column. Boris was defending the right of Muslims to wear what they like in public, but added that he thinks niqabs look like letterboxes. The ministerial reaction has been extraordinary, and deeply unedifying.
Boris’s point was that, in banning the niqab, Denmark had passed a surprisingly illiberal piece of legislation — all the more surprising in that it has emerged from a country often viewed as a bastion of liberty. It is not, he argued, the business of the state to lay down the law on what individuals can and cannot wear in public, beyond the demands of public decency. While there are good reasons to ask people to remove head-coverings when security considerations demand it, such as in airports or public buildings, that is not the same as a blanket ban which has clearly been concocted to target a particular religious group.
But freedom also means freedom to mock this peculiar Arab fashion and point out that there is no scriptural basis for it in the Koran. In a recent Spectator article, Qanta Ahmed pointed out how much trouble she has explaining to non-Muslims that her faith requires modesty, but not a veil. It is the extremists who demand that women cover up, who depend on the ignorance of the West to think that such dress is a fundamental part of Islam.
There are plenty more Muslims who agree — for example Dr Taj Hargey, an imam and director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, who in 2014 launched a campaign for a British burka ban. He described the attire as ‘an archaic tribal piece of cloth that is eagerly used by fundamentalist zealots to promote a toxic brand of extremist non-Koranic theology’— which is a little stronger than describing burka-clad women as looking like letterboxes. Are Boris’s detractors going to describe Dr Hargey as Islamophobic?
It is fundamental to liberalism to defend the right of people to hold views with which you disagree. This is a concept which increasingly seems to be lost in modern politics. Look at the way the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was deposed after failing to deny claims that he considered gay sex to be sinful. Farron tried to argue that his personal faith mattered less than his public position: he had voted for gay marriage. That didn’t matter to his critics.
Liberty also means letting our elected representatives feel free to speak their minds, as long as they stay broadly behind the manifesto on which they stood for election. Boris’s joke was not statesmanlike, but his wider point, in defence of freedom, was brilliant and timely. This should be seen as a test case for anyone calling themselves a liberal. It might seem in bad taste; you might disagree, but in a free society we tolerate disagreement.
And why is anyone surprised that Boris made an irreverent joke? His humour and his refusal to be cowed help to explain why he was twice elected mayor of a Labour city, and why he was so immensely valuable to the Leave campaign during the referendum. That, of course, is the real reason Boris has been attacked. He is too dangerous. Several Tories realise that Mrs May’s Brexit strategy may soon implode and that if it does, then the party at large may seek new leadership. They realise that the former mayor of London, who has a loyal following and an often-demonstrated ability to make the political weather, is the bookmakers’ favourite.
In attacking Boris, the Tories have ended up looking like squabbling self-obsessives — the kind of party that ought not to be left in charge of a country. As a rule, cabinet members do not denounce fellow backbenchers unless they say or do something truly outrageous. Boris Johnson wrote an article in defence of current government policy, yet ended up facing an orchestrated attack from the culture secretary, the Tory chairman, a defence minister, a Foreign Office minister and the Prime Minister herself, over an issue about which most voters will be on Boris’s side. If anything, voters may think that he does not go far enough because he does not back a ban.
We hear continuously that Brexit is narrow-minded nationalism. There is simply no room in the minds of those who believe this for someone like Boris, who combines social and economic liberalism with a dim opinion of the institution that is the EU. But his politics are those of the Conservative mainstream, and for a former foreign secretary to be attacked in this way shows a worrying disconnect between the Tory leadership and party members. Mrs May is entitled to treat every backbench intervention as a leadership challenge. But in doing so, she makes such a challenge more likely.