Brexit is dividing the Tories over Europe – and everything else

The party’s row over Boris Johnson’s comments on the burqa highlights its internal psychodrama. 

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The intra-Conservative Party row over Boris Johnson and the burqa is a fascinating example of how Brexit is gradually driving the party mad.

His description of women who wear the full face veil as looking like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”, while defending their right to wear one, was obviously rude, disrespectful and wrong. And even his defenders understand that if they are honest with themselves.  A good test of this is to ask anyone defending Johnson whether they would be happy to be described as “alright, but dresses like a paedophile”. The answer, of course, would be “no”.

Yet he is being defended by among other people, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, and the commentator Tim Montgomerie, all of whom voted to leave the European Union.

And Johnson is also under heavy fire from other members of the Conservative Party. Alistair Burt, a junior foreign minister, Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry have all criticised him, with the latter two going as far as to say they would leave the party should Johnson ever become prime minister. Brandon Lewis, the Conservative party chair, has made Johnson the subject of an investigation into whether or not he has broken the party’s code of conduct. All of that group backed a Remain vote.

The thing about Johnson’s comments is that it is hard to support the idea they are close to the worst thing a Conservative politician has said or done about a minority group this year. A Pendle councillor shared a joke comparing Asian people to dogs (she says by mistake) and had the whip restored in order to give the party control of the council. Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East, shared a fake news story in March claiming that a group of Somalian Muslims had said that raping white girls was “part of their culture”.

And don’t forget that Zac Goldsmith was not only welcomed back after running a dog-whistle campaign against Sadiq Khan but given a second chance at being the Conservative candidate in Richmond Park after fighting and losing a by-election caused by his own vanity.

Nor is it the first time that a Conservative MP has made a crass remark about how women wearing the full face veil look – Soubry herself compared the burqa to a “bag”. Johnson’s remarks are obviously rude, but it is impossible to see why they merit investigation and that rap sheet – which is by no means exhaustive – does not.

So why are Johnson’s backers defending the indefensible and why have his detractors suddenly acquired bat-like hearing as far as offensive remarks go? Well, it all comes down to Brexit and the Conservative Party’s internal psychodrama about it. Yes, a majority of MPs on both sides has reacted in the usual way to anti-Muslim language in the party – that is to say, with silence – but pro-Remain MPs and crucially the pro-Leave grassroots are circling the wagons. The former doesn’t bode well for the Tories' unity in the future, and the latter suggests the degree to which the party in the country will increasingly prioritise soundness on Brexit over any other consideration.

And that dynamic will continue to trouble the Conservative Party regardless of who wins the battle over Johnson’s column.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.