Boris Johnson faces renewed calls to resign after he made a joke about the “dead bodies” getting in the way of businesses investing in Libya after its bloody civil war.
Speaking on the fringes of the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday evening, the foreign secretary said British businesses wanted to invest in the North African country.
“They have a got brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, into the next Dubai. The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies,” he said.
Johnson added Libya was a “incredible place” with “brilliant young people”.
Philippa Stroud, the Conservative peer who was chairing the meeting, eventually interrupted to suggest Johnson move on to the “next question”.
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said Johnson’s joke was “unbelievably crass, callous and cruel”.
“It is less than a year since Sirte was finally captured from Daesh by the Libyan Government of National Accord, a battle in which hundreds of government soldiers were killed and thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire, the second time in five years that the city had seen massive loss of life as a result of the Libyan civil war,” she said.
“If these words came from the business people themselves, it would be considered offensive enough, but for them to come from the Foreign Secretary is simply a disgrace.
“There comes a time when the buffoonery needs to stop, because if Boris Johnson thinks the bodies of those brave government soldiers and innocent civilians killed in Sirte are a suitable subject for throwaway humour, he does not belong in the office of foreign secretary.”
Jo Swinson, the deputy Lib Dem leader, said “diplomacy is a basic requirement for the role of Foreign Secretary”.
“This latest unbelievably crass and insensitive comment about an issue of such importance is further proof Boris is not up to the job,” she said. “May needs to get her house in order and sack him.”
Johnson, aware of his ability to tigger unwanted headlines, began the question and answer session with Tory members by asking himself out loud: “why did I agree?”.
He also asked the audience ahead of his joke about Libya: “are there any journalists here?”
The Conservative conference in Manchester has been completely overshadowed by talk of Johnson’s place in the Cabinet after he set out a series of personal “red lines” on Brexit.
Theresa May this morning defended not having fired him an said she did not want a Cabinet of “yes men”.