Boris Johnson: is there really a grand plan behind his burqa comments?

Johnson offers tea to reporters gathered outside his house for a comment. PA/Aaron Chown

Seeing a grand plan for power behind Boris Johnson’s “calculated outburst” on what women should wear is perhaps understandable, but possibly also overstating the former foreign secretary’s organisational skills.

Johnson has a long history of causing controversy, from labelling the entire Commonwealth as “piccaninnies”, via insulting the city of Liverpool, to reciting a Rudyard Kipling poem in Myanmar.

The latest controversy involves him saying women in burqas look like “letterboxes” in a move that some have seen as a play to certain elements of his party. But it should probably be seen as part and parcel of Johnson’s habit of insensitivity towards pretty much anyone, rather than part of a carefully laid plan to take over as leader of the Conservative party.

There’s no doubting Johnson’s desire to become prime minister, and it is certainly true that his comments have gone down well with elements of the Conservative party and the right-wing press. Even before the latest controversy broke out, Johnson was seen as the most likely successor to Theresa May, albeit after having trailed well behind other possible contenders during his time as foreign secretary.

But it takes more than being casually offensive to become leader of the Conservative Party. You also need, in particular, the ability to organise a campaign and to reach out to other significant players in the party. Here, Johnson does not have good form.

To do: send tweet

The last time Johnson tried to become leader he failed largely due to his lack of organisational and interpersonal skills. Having alienated some of his key supporters – most importantly Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom – Johnson failed to even enter the competition.

Gove was, at the time, reputed to have conspired to ditch his support for Johnson, but the alleged reason for Leadsom’s loss of faith in Johnson is more telling. According to an article in the Evening Standard, Leadsom demanded written assurances in the form of a letter and a tweet from Johnson that she would be given a top ministerial post in a future Johnson cabinet. Johnson agreed but was reported to have then forgotten to actually deliver the letter and send the tweet by the agreed deadline.

Protestors call for Johnson to be sanctioned after his comments. PA

In short, Johnson failed in his bid because he could not keep people on side and because of a lack of attention to important details. The time since does not appear to have changed either of these qualities in him. His lack of attention to detail was painfully confirmed in his damaging comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British Iranian woman currently imprisoned in Iran. Johnson said she had been “teaching journalism” in Iran when she was arrested for plotting against the government – rather than visiting relatives as her family maintains.

Anyone but Boris

In terms of reaching out to people within the Conservative Party, there is also plenty of evidence that his comments have had the opposite effect. Opposition against him seems to have cemented, as exemplified by comments by several Conservative politicians, such as Dominic Grieve, Sayeeda Warsi, and Conservative peer Andrew Cooper, who accused him of “courting fascism”. If he were to run for the leadership again, he would no doubt be greeted with enthusiasm from some parts of the party, but almost certainly also by a concerted “Anyone-But-Boris” campaign. Being highly divisive is not a good recipe for gathering the support necessary among Conservative MPs to get onto the membership ballot.

So, there is no doubt that Johnson wants to be prime minister, but it also seems that he does not have – and indeed seems incapable of constructing – a clear plan to achieve that goal. That is not to say that Johnson will not become prime minister, but this is more likely to be the result of others seeing him as a convenient vehicle for their own ambitions and plans rather than because of concerted efforts by the man himself.

Johnson has caused controversy before – and no doubt will again – but at no point does it appear that these controversies have been part of a plan to achieve anything long term. It is tempting to read into Johnson’s comments something more than casually causing offence, but the evidence so far would suggest that there is precious little more to it than meets the eye.