An academic has launched a blistering attack on Boris Johnson for joking about “dead bodies” getting in the way of businesses investing in Libya, arguing he should have been “sacked instantly”.
On BBC Question Time, Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities, took issue with his “buffoonery” when there are “serious issues at stake”, and said Theresa May’s unwillingness to dismiss her Foreign Secretary showed the PM was a “follower and not a leader”.
Referring to Libya’s coastal city Sirte, the Foreign Secretary told Tory members this week: “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.”
Johnson has not apologised, commenting only to criticise those who want to “play politics” after referring to the clearing of booby trapped bodies of Islamic State militants.
On the show, which came from Stockport, Churchwell at first took aim at Johnson’s general behaviour, which has included numerous interventions on Brexit.
“I find it extraordinary that anybody watching can think that Boris Johnson is for anything other than Boris Johnson.
“I also find it extraordinary that anybody finds his antics and buffoonery amusing. This is serious stuff. There are really serious issues at stake here.
“He’s an opportunist who makes a case for Brexit and then writes a column making another case, in case he lost the election. He’s not standing on principles. He is not standing up for Theresa May.
“He literally didn’t stand up for Theresa May until Amber Rudd made him.”
She then went on to address his comments on Libya:
“In particular, I have to say specifically, but I don’t think we should walk around this, the specific comments that he made about Libya, a country that is mired in civil war, and he said it had nice beaches that would be good to invest in once they cleared up the dead bodies.
“That is not a joke, it’s not funny, it’s not appropriate for the Foreign Minister of Great Britain to say, and he should have been sacked instantly.
“It’s one of the reasons I say Theresa May is a follower and not a leader, that she didn’t do that right away. And I find it absolutely despicable that anybody is defending him or defending those comments.”
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said Johnson’s joke was “unbelievably crass, callous and cruel”.
Tory grandee Ken Clarke accused the Cabinet minister of throwing his party’s conference into “mayhem”.
The BBC’s Eddie Mair likened Johnson to off-colour comedian Bernard Manning during an interview with Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who admitted her Cabinet colleague’s comments were sometimes “ill-judged”.
On the panel was also First Secretary of State Damian Green, Labour frontbencher Angela Rayner, businesswoman Michelle Dewberry, and journalist Fraser Nelson.