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9 September 2018updated 10 Sep 2018 11:27am

Critics of Boris Johnson’s “suicide vest” comments are giving him exactly what he wants

The remarks are a “dead cat” to distract from Johnson's personal life and keep attention on his only political strength: Brexit.

By Patrick Maguire

“We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier,” writes Boris Johnson of Theresa May’s Brexit plans in today’s Mail on Sunday.

The comments, which the paper splashes on, have sparked predictable cross-party outrage, with the most striking coming from Johnson’s Conservative colleagues.

“This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics,” writes his former deputy at the Foreign Office, Alan Duncan. “I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later. #neverfittogovern.”

Another Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, says: “I’m stunned at the nature of this attack. There is no justification for such an outrageous, inappropriate and hurtful analogy. If we don’t stop this extraordinary use of language over Brexit, our country might never heal. Again, I say, enough.”

Tom Tugendhat, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair, tweeted: “A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand. The carnage was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes. Brave men who stopped him killing me and others died in horrific pain. Some need to grow up. Comparing the PM to that isn’t funny.”

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Add the growing opprobrium over the comments to the media storm over Johnson’s private life – which dominates the rest of the Sunday press’s political coverage today – and it looks like a bad day for the Tory MP and his leadership hopes.

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But is it? The metaphor, like a lot of the former foreign secretary’s writing, is certainly tasteless. But, fundamentally, it is a criticism of May’s approach to Brexit, which is precisely what Johnson wants Conservative MPs to be talking about. This is the only political context in which he will win the leadership; in any other, conversation would soon turn to his personal foibles, as they did in 2016, and he would fail quickly and badly.

Consider the loudest critics of Johnson’s latest remarks. They are all Remainers. Those in cabinet who have rebuked Johnson, like James Brokenshire, are paid-up supporters of Chequers and May. Ministers who haven’t, like Sajid Javid – who said on Marr this morning that Johnson was not Islamophobic – cannot afford to alienate those who favour a “hard” Brexit (Javid is fishing in the same pool of pro-Leave MPs as far as the leadership goes).

All of this gives Johnson exactly what he wants, and more pertinently, needs: a party riven by debate on his terms. Tory Remainers may well have fallen for that most dependable political trick – Lynton Crosby’s dead cat.