BBC radio presenter James Naughtie has apologised for likening a group of Tory Eurosceptic MPs to France’s National Front, saying that his words were “ill-chosen”.
The broadcaster, 67, who occasionally hosts Radio 4′s flagship Today programme, had been labelled a “very, very highly paid bigot” by Conservative Mark Francois during an outburst in parliament.
The Tory MP for Rayleigh and Wickford also objected to Naughtie’s comparisons linked to the Brexit-backing European Research Group (ERG), of which he is a member.
Francois had called for the presenter to resign if he failed to apologise for his comments, made on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday.
Naughtie said in a statement: “I was wrong to say in a live discussion this morning that members of the ERG would be happy in a far-right party.
“That was not my intention, because I don’t believe it. I was trying to make the point that if our parties fracture in some way after Brexit – on right and left – we could see a political landscape emerge that looks more like the rest of Europe than it does at the moment.
“But my words were ill-chosen and I’m sorry for any offence caused.”
He earlier tweeted: “Please remember I was quoting someone. I didn’t say it was my view.”
Naughtie had been involved in a discussion about the impact of Brexit on politics and the governing system.
After saying he did not expect either the Tories or Labour to split and disappear, Naughtie added: “Somebody put it to me the other day, look, in any other European country the Conservative Party wouldn’t exist in its current form.
“The ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s group, in France would be in the National Front because that’s what they believe, and in Germany they’d be in the AfD.
“It’s only because of our system that the carapace of this party keeps them in, and I think on both sides of the aisle that can’t last.”
Raising a point of order in the Commons, Francois repeated the quote before saying: “I believe that is an outrageous comment and it is a slur on at least 80 members of this House.
“We feel passionately about Brexit, as do members from all corners of this House, but that does not mean that we belong in the National Front, a despicable organisation that all of us would condemn.
“I would like to take this opportunity in Parliament, as an elected Member of Parliament, which Mr Naughtie is not, he’s just a very, very highly paid bigot, to say that his comments are outrageous.
“If the BBC does not get him to make a full and complete apology by the end of today he should resign as a presenter of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and if the corporation does not take action against him then it proves what many in this House have suspected for a long time, that they are irredeemably biased and Europhiliac.”
Speaker John Bercow said he would not seek to arbitrate on the matter of the BBC’s position on Brexit and said of Francois: “I have known him for 35 years and there is no way on earth that I could imagine him in the National Front.”
Bercow listed other members of the ERG, and said of Rees-Mogg: “To suggest that there is some sort of National Front allegiance is quite wrong and, in my opinion, uncalled for.
“Let us try to lower the decibel level and treat other people’s views on either side of an argument with respect, debating the issues rather than resorting to slogans.”