LONDON - The chairman of Britain’s governing Conservative Party told former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to say sorry Tuesday for a newspaper column in which he wrote that burqa-wearing women looked like “letter boxes” and bank robbers.
Johnson, who quit the government last month in a dispute over Brexit, made the remarks in a Daily Telegraph article published Monday.
Johnson said he opposed banning burqas and other face-covering garments, but wrote that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”
His article drew criticism from Muslim groups and fellow politicians — including some Conservatives.
Mohamed Sheikh, founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, said Johnson’s article had been “totally out of order.”
Middle East Minister Alistair Burt criticized Johnson for comments he said “many people would find offensive.”
Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis said in a tweet that he agreed with Burt and had asked Johnson to apologize.
Latin-spouting, tousle-headed Johnson is a former mayor of London and one of Britain’s best-known politicians. He resigned as foreign secretary in July, accusing Prime Minister Theresa May of killing “the Brexit dream” with her plan to seek close economic ties with the European Union after the U.K. leaves the bloc next year.
The resignation solidified Johnson’s position as a leader of the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, which is deeply divided over its attitude to the EU.
Many expect May to face a leadership challenge if faltering Brexit negotiations don’t improve — and Johnson is likely to be a contender to replace her. Some suspected Johnson’s burqa comments were intended to boost his appeal among right-wing members of the party.
Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said Johnson was using Muslim women as a “convenient political football to try and increase his poll ratings.”
“These were offensive comments but clever politics,” she said. “Boris knew the effect and the impact that this kind of dog-whistle politics would have.”
Several European countries, including France, Belgium and Denmark, have banned face-covering veils in public, but none of Britain’s main political parties supports such a restriction.
The prime minister’s official spokesman, James Slack, said “such a prescriptive approach would be not in keeping with British values of religious tolerance and gender equality.”