Michael Gove has dubbed Boris Johnson’s critics “snowflakes” after the Foreign Secretary compared France’s President to a Nazi prison camp guard.
The Foreign Secretary faced demands for an apology for his claim that Francois Hollande was threatening the UK with “World War Two”-style “punishment beatings” for its Brexit vote.
Jeremy Corbyn said that Johnson’s outburst - itself a retaliation to a warning from Hollande that Britain would pay a “price” for leaving - was “wild and inappropriate” and risked undermining negotiations with EU partners.
And EU Brexit negotiator and MEP Guy Verhofstadt attacked his “abhorrent and deeply unhelpful comments...which [Prime Minister] May should condemn”.
In what appeared to be a further embarrassment, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid attacked people who used the term ‘Nazi’ to attack political opponents.
But Gove said his former colleague had made a “witty metaphor” and those who were offended were “snowflakes”.
Downing Street also leaped to Johnson’s defence, claiming his “theatrical” remarks were not an attempt to paint the French leader as a Nazi and were simply a warning against any punitive EU response to Brexit.
And in a surreal reference to the sitcom Fawlty Towers, No.10 joked that “there’s not a Govt policy of not talking about the war”.
The row began as the Foreign Secretary used a press conference on a trip to India to hit back at France for suggesting the UK would suffer for quitting the EU.
“If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some sort of World War Two movie, I don’t think that is the way forward and I think actually it’s not in the interests of our friends and our partners,” he said.
But Johnson faced a raft of criticism from Labour and Tory MPs for his “crass” language given millions of French people had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
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.”
Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who is now leading the European Parliament’s negotiations on Brexit, was quick to react too.
A Foreign Office spokesman insisted: “The Foreign Secretary was not suggesting anything of the sort and never used the word Nazi.
“He was simply saying that trying to treat Britain harshly for trying to leave the EU makes no sense in a modern world and won’t work.”
Government sources suggested that Johnson had in mind actor Steve McQueen when he spoke.
But although McQueen starred in the movie The Great Escape, sources said the Foreign Secretary’s ‘World War Two’ remark could apply to Japan as much as Germany.
At one point a source even pointed out that some of the guards of POW camps were the Wehrmacht [German Army], not all of whom were Nazi party members.
The Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman said: “I think he was making a theatrical comparison to some of those evocative World War Two movies that people have seen.”
“He was making a point. He was in no way suggesting that anyone was a Nazi. If anything I think this falls within the category, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, of a ‘hyped up’ media report.”
Put to her that the French government would react badly to the remarks, she replied: “Let’s see what the reaction is from the Elysee before you start determining what the reaction is.”
Asked if the PM would use the same language, the spokeswoman said: “They have got different styles.”
Later, No10 added: “Lots is going to be said during these negotiations. Lots of remarks are going to be made. What will matter is the substance and the outcome at the end. The Elysee haven’t been in touch with us and raised concerns.”
Asked if May had ‘full confidence’ in Johnson, the spokeswoman said: “Yes.”
With ironic timing, Communities Secretary on Wednesday gave evidence to Parliament in which he condemned those who were loose with their use of the term ‘Nazi’.
“We have to call out bigotry and racism when we see it. We have to object when a line is crossed from legitimate debate to smears and abuse. We have to push back when people lazily reach for glib comparisons that belittle what happened…
“Calling those we disagree with “Nazis” or claiming someone’s actions are “just like the Holocaust”. Ultimately, we have to be prepared to do that most un-British of things – we have to make a scene.
“Maybe that’ll be in private. Maybe in the media. Maybe on Twitter. In fact it could be anywhere from the top deck of a bus to right here in Parliament. What’s certain is that if we don’t speak out against hatred and anti-Semitism it will become normalised. It will become part of everyday life. And once that happens, the consequences will be tragic.”
When Javid’s remarks were put to No.10, it insisted it agreed with them but stressed that the Foreign Secretary had not used the phrase ‘Nazi’.
Labour MP Wes Streeting couldn’t resist referring to Gove’s own decision to pull his support for Johnson last summer in the Tory leadership race.
He added: “It seems the Foreign Secretary has been leafing through his well-thumbed copy of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
“Nobody who wants to see a good Brexit deal for Britain should welcome these crass comments.”
Former Foreign Office minister and Tory MP Alistair Burt said: “Any time the phrase ‘World War Two’ comes into your mind as a politician all the alarm bells ought to ring and there’s no doubt about that.
“I’m quite sure the Foreign Secretary understands that. As I say, the point he made was a reasonable one but the language has got to be extremely careful in dealing with colleagues and friends.”
Here’s how the exchanges between reporters and No.10 went in full: