JRM writing in the Telegraph.
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins and a particularly poisonous one, for it is not an excess of something reasonable but entirely devoid of merit. Boris Johnson, because of his many successes, popularity with voters and charisma, attracts more than his fair share of this disagreeable vice. The excitement caused by his comments on the burka are a symptom of this, as is the publication of the complaint to the Conservative Party’s “hotline”, which anyone may call on (020) 7984 8050 if they are so minded.
In Mr Johnson’s Telegraph article, he writes that the burka ought not to be banned. This is a liberal view entirely in line with the historic freedom the British expect to enjoy. Although early parliaments had an obsession with dress codes, for status and economic reasons, it is not an area where legislation has intruded for centuries. This nation is not one that proscribes particular clothes, and it treads upon people’s liberties with caution. This is unlike the Continental tradition which has always been more willing to accept a powerful and authoritarian state.
Why would senior Conservatives want to attack so popular a figure for saying something that had been said before, and which they had not objected to? If women want to cover their faces, they ought to be free to do so. Nuns must be allowed to wear wimples, traditionalists at Holy Mass the mantilla – although that only covers the hair – brides a veil and Muslim ladies a burka.
This is not necessarily a populist argument. Mr Johnson, had he tested his article with focus groups and opinion polls first, would have found that the country at large is more draconian than he wants to be. As it happens, I entirely agree with him. Mr Johnson then went beyond the limits of intolerant liberals and criticised the appearance of the burka. He denied that it adds to the wearer’s pulchritude and did so in a typically forthright way.
Not that he went as far as Kenneth Clarke who, as a Cabinet minister, called it both peculiar and a “kind of bag”. At the time, this would have been the collective view of the government for which Mr Clarke spoke as minister without portfolio, whereas Mr Johnson’s view is that of a backbencher. However, it is hard to see why the offence today is so deep when the purpose of a burka, according to some understandings of the Koran, is to prevent a woman being seen by men outside her immediate family. She is not to “display her beauty” beyond her close relations.
This makes the howls of outrage suspect and the motivations dubious. Why would senior Conservatives want to attack so popular a figure for saying something that had been said before, and which they had not objected to? Could it be that there is a nervousness that a once and probably future leadership contender is becoming too popular and needs to be stopped? This may explain the attempt to use the Conservative Party’s disciplinary procedures, but it has been handled so ham-fistedly that it brings only sympathy and support for Mr Johnson.
The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has already said that no crime has been committed so the words of the Code of Conduct introduced with a degree of urgency last December come to the fore. These are reasonable and it is hard to see how Boris could have broken any of them. It would be absurd to call his words either victimising or harassing. Criticising a type of garment but defending the right of people to wear it is self-evidently neither. Perhaps the complaint ought to be the other way round.
The Code of Conduct sets out how a complaint should be dealt with. At stage two the party chairman is responsible for appointing a panel which reports to him at stage three, at which point he may refer it to the party leader or the board to take action. Unfortunately, both the chairman, Brandon Lewis, and the leader, Theresa May, have prejudged the issue by calling for Boris to apologise, which is arguably a breach of the Code itself. No fair system allows a critic to turn into both prosecutor and judge, so the chairman has embarrassingly had to stand aside and the leader must also excuse herself from any role in this inquiry.
When Margaret Thatcher was leader, she and Michael Heseltine were hardly soulmates, but she would not have allowed personal rivalry to take the heat off the Labour Party, whose own deep internal divisions are buried in other news now, nor would she have countenanced any attempt to have a show trial.
Attacking Boris merely helps the Opposition. It is time for good sense to assert itself, free speech to be encouraged and, as the summer rain falls, for hot-headed action to be cooled down.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is Conservative MP for North East Somerset