By Morak Babajide-Alabi

The race for who becomes the leader of the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party and Prime Minister is now between the two top aspirants. It is a straight battle between the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and the incumbent, Jeremy Hunt. These two are no strangers to politics, as they have both played significant roles in the Conservative government since 2010.

Johnson is loud, and sometimes uncontrollable, especially in his approach to the exit of the UK from the European Union (EU). Hunt, on the other hand, looks calmer but has also managed a few negative headlines in the public service, especially some controversial decisions as Health Secretary. He is a “Remainer.”

The contest will be decided by party members across the country. However, going by the voting patterns of the Members of Parliament (MP) in whittling down the number of aspirants, the indication is that Johnson is heading to 10 Downing Street. The question now is will Boris’s past impede the future of Johnson?

Sometimes last year, Johnson, in his usual character, caused a bit a stir in his comments on Muslim women who wear the burka. At this crucial time when Britain is seeking a fresh beginning, I think it is best to remind us of Johnson’s history. Here is a part of a piece – Johnson Stirs The Burka Nest In Britain, I wrote on August 12, 2018.

No one, except Johnson, can explain the motive for condemning the wearing of the burka by Moslem women. In his column in the UK’s Daily Telegraph Johnson had commented on the ban of the burka in Denmark, and made a comparison of women who wear them with “armed robbers” and “letterboxes”.

None other but Johnson knows the reasons he decided to go this route. Being a public figure his comments, as usual, have attracted a lot of interests. People have criticised his views, but some sections of the public hail him for saying what was on the minds of a silent majority. There are fears that some citizens may seize this opportunity to propagate their ideas against religious tolerance.

To be fair to Johnson, he did not canvass the ban of this religious way of dressing in the UK; however, he was of the impression there is no religious injunction for any woman of faith to wear the burka. He had written – “If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, and then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran.”

In this wise, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP would expect his constituents to take them off if they come to his surgery for a consultation. He said: “In Britain today there is only a tiny, tiny minority of women who wear these odd bits of headgear. One day, I am sure, they will go.” There is no prize for guessing what Johnson would do if he has the choice of running the country. By his comments, Johnson had cleverly set the agenda for a debate of the burka in the UK. He may have written against the ban of this Islamic mode of dressing in Denmark, in the same vein, he has thrown the issue into the UK public sphere.

As expected there were a few strong views on this, especially against the backdrop of the threat of terrorism. It is alarming that this simple mode of dressing of a particular religion is now perceived as a threat to national security. It is somewhat difficult to identify with some arguments of Mr Johnson’s supporters, as they are now obviously feeding into the “alt-right” views. Some of them have said that to allow the continued use of burka in the UK is multiculturalism taken too far. They are feeding into Johnson’s tacit condemnation and inciting hatred and attacks.

Many people could see through Johnson’s ploy of using Muslim women as soft cannon to stake a bid at the Conservative Party leadership position. Boris Johnson cannot be described as a dimwit. It will also be foolhardy to form an opinion of him by his dress sense, his hairstyle or his garrulous nature or manner of walking. He may not come across as a textbook description of an intellectual, but make no mistake he does make use of his brain.

Johnson sometimes comes across as a confused and ‘thick’ individual, but he always has plans behind the clumsiness. He may walk across a hall as giddy, but make no mistake; his eyes are always on the “prize”. He mumbles his sentences sometimes, but he has a coherence that suggests he is more intelligent than he is showing off to his audience.

You cannot stay on the fence in your opinion of Johnson. You either like or hate him.  His adult life, as a journalist or politician, has been of controversies. He is a man of flamboyant character who speaks before thinking of what the repercussions are. Many believe Johnson’s rise has been aided by the aura of confusion he carries around himself.

Following his burka comments, Johnson’s former boss, Prime Minister Theresa May was said to have implored him to apologise for the comments. The Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, who spoke to Johnson about this said on a radio programme that “I would never have made such a comment, I think there is a degree of offence in that, absolutely right.”

Johnson did not tender an apology. No one was sure if May, nor Lewis was actually expecting any from him. Rather, the public rebuke was only for political influence. A few of Johnson’s former colleague such as Dominic Grieve, a onetime attorney general and notable Tory “Remainer” publicly condemned him. Grieve said: “If he (Johnson) were to become (the) leader of the party, I for one wouldn’t be in it. I don’t regard him as a fit and proper person to lead a political party and certainly not the Conservative Party.” This is a weighty condemnation.

Johnson’s ambition at becoming the UK Prime Minister, one day, very soon, has never been a secret. He was a pain in the neck of David Cameron. In the run off to the referendum, Johnson acted the role of a coy politician, by keeping his cards to his chest, away from Cameron. He went on to become the face of the Leave Group. He and his band made a good job of the campaign as they whipped up emotions to discredit the UK’s membership of the union. We recollect Johnson stepping off the big red campaign bus with the bold slogan – “we send the EU £350 million a week”.

He brought his usual funny character into the campaign and won the hearts of many ordinary citizens. Some saw a man they could relate with and therefore believed all he “offered”. Unfortunately, most of Johnson’s arguments and standpoints were made without any empirical backing. Who cares? The referendum was won, anyway. He was appointed the foreign secretary May’s trophy government after his bid for the Premiership was dealt a sly blow by his right-hand man, Michael Gove.

In a free country such as the UK, Johnson is entitled to his opinion, but he seems to have momentarily forgotten that his freedom stops where that of others’ begins. Johnson had stirred the hornet’s nest with this burka debate, but will he survive the after effect? It is just a waiting game.

As written for the Diaspora Matters Column, Sunday Vanguard, June 23, 2019.