Boris Johnson’s support among grassroots Conservatives, already resurgent in the wake of his resignation over Brexit, appears to have been bolstered further by his claim that Muslim women in burqas resemble letterboxes and bank robbers.
Tory activists have claimed that party members admire the former foreign secretary’s “straight talking” on the controversial issue and suggested his words implied he had listened to some of their concerns about community integration.
One senior grassroots activist said the membership was unlikely to be offended by his choice of language. “I doubt it. They’ll know what Boris is doing. They know how he operates – and they like it. The grassroots talk straight and polishing everything with Westminster-speak is not the way they do it. It won’t do him any harm.”
One association chair added: “He’s just saying what many people think. Boris is not the only one to feel uncomfortable about the way some Muslim women dress. His choice of language may not have been the wisest, but at least he’s talking about issues the rest of them seem too afraid to address.”
Johnson’s relationship with the grassroots, many of whom have long regarded him as their future leader of choice, took a hammering when he became foreign secretary and, for the most part, fell into line behind Theresa May on Brexit.
But after he resigned over the Chequers deal his popularity has apparently soared. A ConservativeHome survey of party members last week put him top, with almost a third of respondents backing him as their preferred choice. He last led the table in March 2016, just after he came out for Leave.
“So his rising support among the grassroots comes despite that scepticism, which is a measure of quite how unpopular the Chequers fudge is. The prime minister handed him a chance to revitalise his prospects by becoming the standard bearer for a true Brexit, and he seized it.”
May has written a lengthy letter to members, endorsed by sceptical cabinet Brexiters including Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox, in an attempt to calm fractious Tory activists angry with her Chequers plan.
The letter, received by Tory party members on Tuesday, follows a concerted effort by Conservatives to woo party chairs, with face-to-face briefings with May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, and the party chair, Brandon Lewis. The prime minister herself took part in a conference call to take questions directly from local chairs.
Johnson’s fortunes are tied closely with Brexit. One senior grassroots Tory said: “Even the cabinet did not twig how adverse the reaction to the Chequers deal would be among Brexit supporters. There’s a very strong sense of betrayal – that would not be too strong a word – and huge anti-Mayism.
“The Brexiters like Michael Gove who attempted to defend it lost a lot of credibility with people. The extreme Brexiters never really trusted Boris because he got on board so late, but I think his resignation has solidified his reputation with them.”
A London Tory added: “I don’t think Boris’s popularity had ever really gone away with the grassroots. He damaged himself by not resigning over Heathrow, but then most of the party welcomed the way he resigned over Chequers and that really put him back up there.”
Yet even his allies are at a loss as to what the former foreign secretary, thought to be on holiday in Europe, is up to now. The prime minister and party chiefs urged Johnson to apologise for his choice of language, fearful that it added weight to the Tory party’s Islamophobia problem.
He has been accused of flirting with the right, with rumours of communication with former Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon cited as proof of his direction of travel. Some of his Tory colleagues have attacked him for “dog-whistle” racism.
Others suggest the incident comes down to Johnson’s haphazard writing style, apparently dashing off a Telegraph column without too much thought – “colourful” language or a surprising argument used to draw the reader in, before reaching a mundane conclusion.
Either way, there are plenty of local associations which believe his remarks are unhelpful to the wider party, let alone his own leadership ambitions. Other Brexiter candidates, notably Jacob Rees-Mogg, are replacing him in their affections.
Bob Perry, chair of Hornchurch and Upminster Conservative association, where tickets for a Rees-Mogg dinner in November have already sold out, said: “I like Boris but I think what he said was an extremely stupid thing to say and he’s shot himself in the foot. I think the ‘Boris effect’ has probably deserted him.”
A constituency association officer from the south-west added: “Boris is no longer the darling of the party. His constant need for attention has worn thin and instead it’s Jacob who is in demand on the association dinner circuit.
“Publishing an opinion as to whether to ban the burqa or not is fine but Boris’s use of language was designed to simply fuel publicity for himself.”
There is frustration among even his grassroots supporters over his comments, and subsequent refusal to apologise despite the prime minister’s wishes. “The view of a lot of people is irritation that he’s undone himself by using some slightly sloppy language,” said one.
“It’s not new. We know that Boris tends to do stuff like this and create a great storm that tends to blow away within 24 hours. Whether this will blow away is a different thing. He really had resurrected himself and now he’s in the eye of the storm. They are particularly sensitive to accusations of Islamophobia.”
Johnson is understood to be considering his options over the summer. There have been rumours of a new organisation being set up to help boost his leadership credentials, and that he may front a big Brexit rally in the autumn, both of which allies have been keen to play down.
His biggest obstacle to the leadership, should a vacancy arise, is his fellow MPs, the majority of whom would be more likely to back a rival such as Sajid Javid.
One friend said: “He’s not a man who plans coups, he doesn’t actually have a plan to get rid of [May]. You can see that, he’s not going up and down the country speaking to Conservative associations, he’s not going round buttering up MPs, he doesn’t have a team of MPs working for him, planning his election.
“He’s more a man who believes that an opportunity comes your way, or it doesn’t. But he’s very competitive. He feels that he won … the Brexit referendum and he’s damned if it’s going to be taken away. So I think it’s really Brexit that’s driving him, rather than anything else. That’s what is motivating this.”
Whether Johnson remains the Tory grassroots’ man, they seem united around disappointment in May’s version of Brexit. One activist said: “Brexit needs a believer, and we know that the prime minister doesn’t really believe. There’s a feeling that maybe Boris should be given a chance.”
In a letter to the Times on August 9, Taj Hargey, the imam at the Oxford Islamic Congregation said that Mr Johnson should not apologise the telling the truth and that the burka had no Koranic legitimacy but was a nefarious component of a trendy gateway theology for religious exremism and militant Islam.