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22 January 2021

Boris Johnson has a lesson to teach us about civility – but not the one he thinks

The Prime Minister is in no position to lecture anyone about lack of respect in political discourse.

By Jonn Elledge

In 1990, during a recorded telephone conversation that is widely available on the internet today, Daily Telegraph reporter Boris Johnson agreed, after some consternation about the risk of being sued, to pass the address of another reporter to his friend Darius Guppy, who intended to have him beaten up.

Three decades later, Johnson, by then the Prime Minister, WhatsApped his parliamentary party to warn that the Labour Party liked to “intimidate and threaten colleagues”, in a manner he compared to the Trump supporters who 11 days earlier had stormed the US Capitol.

[See also: Gossip about Labour’s obscure front bench has started – but it’s too early to write them off]

“The key thing is that we all remember to be civil and respectful to each other in how we talk about these issues that matter greatly to the electorate,” the PM’s official spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, explained to amused and baffled reporters the next day. She declined to engage in discussion of whether Johnson’s own past behaviour could be described as either civil or respectful.

There may be a very good reason for that.

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In September 2018, just weeks after resigning as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson penned a column about the so-called Chequers deal for Brexit. “We have opened ourselves to perpetual political blackmail,” he wrote in the Mail on Sunday. (“We” here refers to his former boss and colleagues in the government of Theresa May, of course, not to any group including Johnson himself.) “We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to [EU Brexit negotiator] Michel Barnier.”

[See also: Kevin Maguire’s Diary: My grudge with Boris Johnson, Labour leaks – and where is Allegra Stratton?]

The previous month Johnson had used his Telegraph column to accuse people who wore face coverings – that is, Muslim women – of resembling “bank robber[s]”, adding: “It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” The Muslim Council of Britain accused him of “pandering to the far right”. It took him 16 months to apologise.

Over a decade earlier, in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings of 2005, Johnson had written in the Spectator that Britain should somehow persuade its Muslim citizens that “their faith must be compatible with British values”. Johnson’s own contribution to this act of persuasion was to note that Islam was “the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers”. “The problem is Islam,” he wrote, emphatically. “Islam is the problem.”

Then of course there was the infamous 2002 Telegraph column in which Johnson gleefully referred to “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. That same year Johnson shared more of his views on Africa in the Spectator. “The continent may be a blot,” he wrote, “but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” Africans were lucky to have had the benefit of British agricultural wisdom, he wrote. “If left to their own devices, the natives would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain.” Uganda, he added, was “still a country where too many people squat on their haunches, slowly waving their hands to move the flies from their faces”.

Lest anyone think it’s merely foreigners who have been on the wrong end of Johnson’s civil and respectful dialogue, in his 2001 book Friends, Voters, Countrymen, he commented thusly on gay marriage: “I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog.” But this should not be misconstrued as a sign of Johnson’s respect for more traditional forms of family, as anyone who has ever tried to count his children will know.

Indeed, while campaigning in Henley in 2005, he told voters that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”, apparently unaware that, by 2005, the women of Britain had had the vote for some time. Nine years before that, writing about Labour’s conference, he had brought out the “tottymeter”, then credited the number of glamorous women in Blackpool that autumn to “the whiff of power. With the fickleness of their sex, they are following the polls.”

I could go on. I could mention Johnson’s two-word response to claims that the business lobby was concerned about the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. Or the time he told a Labour member of the London Assembly to “get stuffed” for using mayor’s question time to actually ask the mayor questions. I could reference his repeated use of terms such as “Surrender Act”, “betrayal” and “traitor” when trying to push his Brexit deal through parliament. When criticised for this language by the Labour MP Paula Sherriff, Johnson replied, “I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.” He added that “the best way to honour the memory” of the murdered, Remain-supporting MP Jo Cox, would be to “get Brexit done”.

We have become used to the coarsening of political discourse across the world, especially considering the tone set by the occupant of the Oval Office for the past four years. But times are changing. As of this week, the US president is, thankfully, not the man who gleefully spoke of grabbing women “by the pussy”. His replacement has warned staff he will “fire them on the spot” if they show disrespect to their colleagues.

It is perhaps no surprise that Britain’s Prime Minister has yet to institute a similar rule for his own staff. But it is a surprise that he should feel he is in a position to warn the opposition about the importance of civil and respectful language. To coin a phrase: I have never heard such humbug in all my life.

[See also: Why Boris Johnson is dangerously similar to Donald Trump]