The Conservative peer and former Downing Street aide to David Cameron Andrew Cooper has accused Boris Johnson of “casual racism” and “courting of fascism”.
Lord Cooper said on Twitter:
His comments came shortly after Jacob Rees-Mogg described the Conservative party investigation into allegedly Islamophobic comments by Johnson as a “show trial” and an attempt to scupper his chances of a future tilt for the leadership.
The Tory MP and prominent Eurosceptic suggested the inquiry may be driven by Theresa May’s “personal rivalry” with her former foreign secretary.
Johnson, who is holidaying abroad, has yet to respond to the furore sparked by his article on Monday, in which he opposed a ban on the burqa or niqab, but said the face-covering veils were “ridiculous” and “oppressive” and compared Muslim women wearing them to letter boxes or bank robbers.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, Rees-Mogg suggested the attacks on Johnson’s comments were a reflection of envy felt towards him because of “his many successes, popularity with voters and charisma”.
He said the outrage directed at the former figurehead of the leave campaign were suspect and the motivations of those attacking him dubious.
“Could it be that there is a nervousness that a once and probably future leadership contender is becoming too popular and needs to be stopped?” he asked.
“This may explain the attempt to use the Conservative Party’s disciplinary procedures, but it has been handled so ham-fistedly that it brings only sympathy and support for Mr Johnson.”
He said that when Margaret Thatcher was leader, she and Michael Heseltine were “hardly soulmates”, but she would not have allowed personal rivalry to take the heat off the Labour party, “whose own deep internal divisions are buried in other news now, nor would she have countenanced any attempt to have a show trial”.
He said attacking Johnson merely helped the opposition. “It is time for good sense to assert itself, free speech to be encouraged and, as the summer rain falls, for hot-headed action to be cooled down.”
Rees-Mogg’s remarks follow those of the former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who said the party’s disciplinary system should not be used to “shut down” Johnson. It has been reported that letters have been sent to the party complaining about the chairman, Brandon Lewis, whose demand for an apology from Johnson provoked an escalation of the row earlier this week.
However, critics continue to maintain that Johnson’s comments contributed to hatred and abuse. Conservative sources have insisted the investigation was triggered automatically after a number of complaints were received, including one which is understood to have come from the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohamed Sheikh.
Social media users retweeted a comment by a woman who claimed she was called a “f*****g letter box” by someone in London.
But while Johnson’s comments were branded “inflammatory and divisive” by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the watchdog made clear it was not launching its own investigation.
It said a complaint received from a member of the public did not prompt an inquiry because it did not fall within its remit of investigating breaches of equality law, such as the denial of a service on the grounds of race or religion.
The chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said: “The effectiveness of our democratic society depends on freedom of expression, and the expression of offensive and intolerant opinions is generally not unlawful.
“Boris Johnson’s use of language in this instance, which risks dehumanising and vilifying Muslim women, is inflammatory and divisive.
“Political figures should lead by example, conducting debates in a responsible manner, and language such as this can inhibit legitimate dialogue.”
A panel which includes one independent figure, one representative of the voluntary party and one nominated by the backbench 1922 Committee, will look into complaints that Johnson’s comments breached the Conservative code of conduct.
Under party rules, the head of the panel may dismiss the complaints if they are found to be obviously trivial, lacking in merit or unable to be fairly investigated.
Disciplinary action could lead to Johnson being suspended or expelled from the Tories, but would risk igniting civil war in a party in which many members see Johnson as the best option to succeed May as leader.
There have also been suggestions he could be ordered to attend a diversity training course.
On Saturday, the chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin, said he heard a “consistent message” from members of Britain’s Islamic community that “they think the Conservative party is anti-Muslim”.
Amin told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “[Johnson’s] remarks were simply improper for a senior British politician. The fact that he’s been called on to apologise by the party chairman and prime minister is a positive development. He should repent.”
Amin said he was horrified that some of Johnson’s Conservative supporters were claiming he was being targeted for his views on Brexit.
“This is not a Brexit issue, this is about Boris Johnson choosing to upset … not just women who wear niqab, but virtually every Muslim in the country,” he said.
But the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen said Johnson’s critics were showing “huge hypocrisy”.
“There’s one rule for Boris Johnson and another rule for everyone else, and it’s not fair,” Bridgen said.