George Osborne becomes first senior Tory to criticise Boris Johnson's IQ and inequality comments

"I would not have put it like that," says the Chancellor, after the Mayor of London states that "some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy".

George Osborne has become the first senior Tory to distance himself from Boris Johnson's remarks about IQ and inequality.

In a speech this week, the Mayor of London had said noted that 16 per cent of "our species" had an IQ of less than 85, and just two per cent of had an IQ of more than 130. Under such conditions, true equality was never possible, he said: "Indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity."

On the Andrew Marr Show, Osborne said: "I would not have put it like that. I don't agree with everything he said. I think there is actually increasingly common agreement across the political spectrum you can't achieve equality of outcome, but you should be able to achieve equality of opportunity. You should give everyone, wherever they come from, the best chance, and, actually, education is the key to this."

Boris Johnson's speech provoked near-unanimous condemnation from the left. In the Evening Standard, Jenni Russell called his argument "utter rubbish":

Britain is a starkly unequal society where the dice are loaded against the poorest children and in favour of the richest from the moment of their conception. Success has infinitely more to do with background and upbringing than with talent or determination.

In the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley asked the Mayor:

The Conservative party is also charged with being disdainful of ordinary people. Labour have clearly and repeatedly signalled that they plan to fight the next election campaign by attacking the Tories for not caring about the majority. Would it be smart to suggest that large swaths of the population should be written off on the grounds that they are too thick to compete?

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the comments revealed "careless, unpleasant elitism".

But so far politicians on the right have largely remained silent. (The press were warmer: the Mail and Times reprinted extracts of the speech, while the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan wrote a piece entitled "Thank goodness for Boris". ConservativeHome's Iain Dale provided a rare dissenting voice.)

While the Cabinet will be able to keep their heads down until the autumn statement takes over the news cycle, David Cameron may be unable to duck the question of whether he agrees with Johnson. He's flying to China tonight with a press pack in tow.

Will any of them ask him if he thinks that inequality is good thing?

George Osborne with Ed Balls on the Andrew Marr show.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.