Boris Johnson will face investigation by an independent panel following complaints that his comments about women wearing burkas breached the Conservative Party’s code of conduct.
The former foreign secretary has come under pressure from Tory MPs, including prime minister Theresa May, to apologise for a Sunday Telegraph column in which he described Muslim women who wear the face veil as “letter boxes” and likened them to bank robbers.
News of the probe came as Johnson was rebuked for failing to seek official guidance before resuming his Daily Telegraph column after quitting as a minister.
The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) - which vets appointments by ex-ministers and senior officials - said it was “unacceptable” that he signed a contract with the newspaper before contacting them.
A party spokesperson, meanwhile, said that its code of conduct process is “strictly confidential”.
Conservative Party rules, however, state:
“When we receive a formal complaint, we will investigate it in a timely and confidential manner. The investigation will be conducted by someone with appropriate experience and no prior involvement in the complaint. The investigation should be thorough, impartial and objective, and carried out with sensitivity and due respect for the rights of all parties concerned.”
In an article for the Daily Telegraph on Sunday, Johnson wrote that Denmark was wrong to ban the burka even if it was “oppressive”.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes,” he wrote. Johnson added: “If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly.
“If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto.”
Under the terms of the Ministerial Code - which ministers are required to sign before taking office - former ministers are required to consult the committee before any new appointments are announced or taken up.
However, Acoba said Johnson only notified them of his Telegraph appointment on July 26, two weeks after he signed the contract and after the paper announced that he would be resuming the weekly column which he gave up when he became foreign secretary in 2016.
The Uxbridge MP, who is holidaying abroad, has not responded to demands for an apology
Disciplinary action could lead to Johnson being suspended or even expelled from the Tories.
Under party rules, complaints that are obviously trivial, lacking in merit or those which cannot fairly be investigated can be dismissed by the head of the investigation.
The process will allow Johnson to make a statement providing “any evidence or details that will help to establish their position”.
A panel of at least three people, including one independent member, one appointed by the party chairman and one by the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, will decide whether there is a potential breach of the code.
The panel reports its findings to the party chairman but the final decision on an appropriate sanction could go to May as leader or to the party’s board.
Critics have accused Johnson of using the row to gain right-wing support in a future leadership battle.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve said he would quit the party if Johnson became leader, while Anna Soubry said that “many” One Nation Tories would also leave.
Culture secretary Jeremy Wright and leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson agreed with May that Johnson’s remarks had crossed a line.
Tory peer and president of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Lord Sheikh, said on Wednesday that Johnson should be kicked out of the party.
Meanwhile other MPs have leapt to his defence. Backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said May was “clearly wrong” to have called for Johnson to apologise.
While Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, said he felt “uncomfortable” speaking to a woman in a burka as you can’t see their reaction and it goes against “millions of years of human evolution”.