Downing Street defends Boris Johnson over ‘Brexit punishment beatings’ quip
Downing Street was forced to come to the defence of British foreign secretary Boris Johnson after he warned the French president, François Hollande, not to respond to Brexit by trying to “administer punishment beatings” in the manner of “some world war two movie”.
The foreign secretary evoked the darkest period of France’s recent history as he rejected comments by an adviser to Hollande who said Britain should not expect a better trading relationship outside Europe than it currently enjoys inside.
At a foreign policy conference in Delhi, Johnson said: “If Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some world war two movie, I don’t think that is the way forward. It’s not in the interests of our friends and partners.”
His words came only 24 hours after Theresa May reminded her cabinet ministers in her Lancaster House speech to show restraint by warning “any stray word” could make securing a Brexit deal more difficult.
Although the French government declined to respond to Johnson’s remarks, Guy Verhofstadt, the lead Brexit negotiator for the European parliament, branded them “abhorrent and deeply unhelpful”.
British politicians accused Johnson of being unfit to head the diplomatic service. Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: “This is an utterly crass and clueless remark from the man who is supposed to be our chief diplomat.
“I assume Boris Johnson says these things to deflect from the utter shambles this Brexit government is in over its plans to take Britain out of the single market. But this kind of distasteful comment only serves to unite Europe further against Britain at a time we need friends more than ever.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said: “We’re well aware the foreign secretary has a habit of making wild and inappropriate comments, and talking about world war two in that context is another one of those.
“That’s not going to be something that’s going to improve the climate for these negotiations. I don’t think threats or wild comparisons or analogies are going to help the situation.”
But Downing Street defended the foreign secretary, saying he had not likened Hollande to a Nazi, and was only “making a theatrical comparison to some of those evocative WWII movies”. The spokeswoman rejected press interpretations of the comments, comparing them to the “hyped-up media reports” condemned by the prime minister in her Brexit speech.
Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said his brother had been “using colourful language to get over an important point”. Michael Gove, Johnson’s fellow leave campaigner, said people offended by Johnson were “humourless [and] deliberately obtuse”.
The foreign secretary’s remarks in Delhi came after Jacques Audibert, diplomatic adviser to Hollande, said that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside. Some ministers believe France is leading the calls to punish the UK, and possibly the City of London, over its plans to leave the European Union.
Last October Hollande, in common with many other European politicians in recent months, declared Britain had to pay a price for Brexit: “There must be a threat, there must be a risk, there must be a price,” he declared.
It is not the first time the former London mayor has evoked the second world war in the context of Brexit. He told the Sunday Telegraph during the referendum campaign that the EU was an attempt “by different methods” to unite the continent under a single government. He said: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically.”