In 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian project manager for Thomson Reuters Foundation, and the mother of a young child, was arrested on holiday visiting her family in Iran. While Boris Johnson was driving around in a Brexit bus, her family and MP Tulip Siddiq were campaigning for her release. In particular, they were challenging the accusation that she was trying to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Then, in blundered Johnson. He told a Commons committee that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching people journalism” – despite the fact that Thomson Reuters Foundatino does not operate in Iran, she is not a journalist, and she was visiting her family for Iranian New Year. After his comments, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was threatened with another five years in jail.
As many have pointed out, Johnson’s “gaffe” could affect a woman’s life. And it’s not the first time. Here are seven times he has got away with saying the unsayable:
1. A colonial poetry evening
Myanmar has embarked on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, and the best chance of stopping it is moral pressure from the international community.
Unfortunately, Britain’s claim to the moral high ground regarding its former colony has been undermined by footage of Johnson in a Myanmar temple this January, reciting a poem by the arch-colonialist Rudyard Kipling. The UK ambassador to Myanmar managed to stop him before he got to the lines “Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud / Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd” – a reference to the Buddha.
2. The Fourth Reich
In May 2016, Johnson told the Telegraph that while Brussels bureaucrats are using “different methods” to Hitler, they both aim to create a European superstate with Germany at its heart.
The European Union was actually designed to prevent another World War, protect the rights of minorities and smaller nations, and embrace the tedium of day-long meetings about standardised mortgage fact sheets.
3. Foreign politeness
In 2002, Johnson wrote about then-prime minister Tony Blair’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Queen, he said, loved the Commonwealth “partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”. Blair, he suggested, would be “similarly seduced by foreign politeness”, and “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles”. The same year, he wrote that “the best fate for Africa” would be if “the old colonial powers… scrambled once again in her direction”.
He finally apologised for the comments when running for Mayor of London in 2008.
4. Bravo Assad
When peaceful protesters took to the streets in Syria in 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad warned: “Assad, or we burn the country”. With chemical warfare, barrel bombs and indiscriminate attacks, it lived up to its word. The only thing Assad’s regime didn’t do was deliberately destroy ancient monuments and film it for the wider world to see, like its opponents Islamic State.
On this dubious honour alone, Johnson felt it fit to write a column headlined “Bravo for Assad”, and claiming that “the victory for Assad is a victory for archaeology”.
5. Some female emancipation
As London mayor, Johnson tried to show he was cracking down on female genital mutilation.
However, in 2002, he seemed to dismiss the importance of this goal, writing in the Spectator that: “Almost every dollar of Western aid seems tied to some programme of female emancipation – stamping out clitorectomy, polygamy, bride-price, or whatever.”
When then-US president Barack Obama commented on the EU referendum debate, Johnson responded by referring to Obama’s “part-Kenyan” ancestry, which he suggested was the reason he removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.
Without mentioning Johnson by name, Obama pointed out that he had merely moved the Churchill bust, and noted that he thought a bust of civil rights activist Martin Luther King was “appropriate” in the Oval Office. MLK was also a critic of colonialism.
7. Dead bodies
Most people will remember the chaos that swept Libya after its citizens rose up against dictator Muammar Gaddafi. They will remember that the despot called his opponents “greasy rats”, and used helicopter gunships against crowds of demonstrators. They may also remember that David Cameron decided to intervene in Libya, and even despite his conscious effort to avoid another Iraq, MPs later judged that the intervention was badly planned.
At a Conservative party conference fringe event, Johnson thought it was appropriate to declare that the Libyan city of Sirte could be the new Dubai – “all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away”.
More than 5,000 people have died in Libya since 2014, and half a million are homeless. MPs, including some from Johnson’s own party, called for him to be sacked.