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Ramsay Jones: Boris Johnson’s dog-whistle jokes on what Muslim women wear are no longer a laughing matter

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I had my first brush with Boris 12 years ago. It was in Bournemouth at the Conservative Party Conference, and David Cameron’s first as leader.

Back then, as now, Boris was box office. When he spoke in the main hall, queues formed to get in. He packed out fringe events. Other big names went around with an entourage of assistants and advisors, but the bunch around Boris was composed of starry-eyed admirers and a posse of journalists. The former just wanted to be seen in his company, the latter were on the lookout for good copy. And he delivered.

Whatever else you think of him, BoJo is a star turn. His coiffure, his mannerism, his turn of phrase and his larger than life persona mark him out as somebody out of the ordinary. A man whose forefathers graced the royal families of Europe, with Romanov blood running in his veins.

And a person of enormous intellect. Rarely short of something to say. He shoots from the lip.

So on that day in October 2006, we were about to hold our Scottish reception. At that time, Boris had his eyes on being Mayor of London. He had already been hitting the conference headlines, launching attacks on Jamie Oliver and bristling against compulsory child seats in cars. He opined that, “When I was growing up we all bounced around like peas in a rattle – did it do us any harm?”

(Answers on a postcard…)

Anyway, he also has a pop at free personal care and university tuition in Scotland, on the grounds that they were subsidised by the taxpayers of London. It was all too easily portrayed as anti-Scotland and ignorant of the fact that if something is free in Scotland then something else devolved is getting less money that it might.

So as I met David Cameron for a briefing before he appeared at the Scottish Conservative event, I warned him that BBC Scotland would be waiting to “doorstep” him on the way in. Boris, I said, would be the only topic.

The Boss was unperturbed.

The camera was on.

The microphone thrust towards the Leader.

The question was asked…

And thus, a refrain was born which would be used down the ensuing months and years…

“Boris will be Boris,” said David, who smiled and walked on. And the story ended there.

Because back then, Mr Johnson could be dismissed as the loose-lipped maverick. The entertainer, the conference darling, who spoke for himself, not the party. Someone who’s presence was to be indulged because he was a Heineken politician, refreshing and reaching the voters other politicians couldn’t.

Also in Bournemouth that year, Boris Johnson told a meeting that he would be “doing no more apologising” following high profile acts of contrition when he offended Liverpool and Papua New Guinea.

It later emerged that at another fringe meeting, Mr Johnson had been reported as saying: “Supposing Tower Hamlets or Bradford were to become governed by religious zealots.

“Are we ready for complete local autonomy if it means imposing Sharia law?”

Which brings us to his latest controversy.

Often, in the past, his headline gaffes have been when speaking off the cuff. They may or may not have been intentional.

But the row about his comments about the burka (although in truth he should have referred to the niqab) were not spontaneous. They were crafted in a newspaper column. They were, presumably, carefully considered.

They have brought to the boil already simmering tensions in the Tory Party.

They have diverted attention from the Labour anti-Semitism row that had been dominating the headlines.

If Boris hadn’t included the line about those who wore face coverings looking like postboxes and bank robbers then the piece would have gone largely unreported. It would, however, have disappointed some for whom the burka and niqab should be banned because his column was, at its heart, a liberal cry for tolerance.

But instead, a dog whistle went out. Even if it was unintended, many will take this row as an excuse for promoting an illiberal view.

Those who attack Boris do so on the grounds that he has gratuitously offended a section of society by demeaning their appearance. It was an assault on their religious beliefs. And that it will encourage the mad, bad and dangerous extremes in our society to increase their verbal and physical assaults on Muslims.

Those who defend BoJo do so on the grounds that he is entitled to freedom of speech. It was, claims Rowan Atkinson, a joke. He should be allowed to make it.

I think both camps are right.

Of course Boris is free to say what he did. He is not meaning to, nor do I think he would ever would wish to, directly stoke the extremists. He has not broken any law. Indeed, I do not think he should face formal censure from the party.

But this is not about free speech. That is a red herring defence to a charge which is not being levied.

This is about responsibility. And those in positions of responsibility. And taking seriously the consequences of such a position.

Because, fairly or unfairly, those who hold or aspire to high office can, with ill-advised words, set off those in our society who are more reactionary, less tolerant and lacking in empathy. Even if that is not their aim.

Because fairly or unfairly, those of influence have a greater responsibility and are judged in a stiffer court.

Because the reality is that he has told Britain that it is OK to laugh at Muslim women who cover their heads or faces. His words might have been mildly amusing between friends down the pub in a Saturday night. But not in a national newspaper.

I don’t know what his motives are. Maybe it is a play in the battle for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party post-May.

Maybe it is his true belief and just a clumsy joke. But it has nurtured and nourished the reactionary right.

But it won’t be the last time and the days are long-gone when his utterances could be dismissed with a smile and the words “Boris will be Boris”.

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