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1 December 2013

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".

By Helen Lewis

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.

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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?