The former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson is to a face a disciplinary investigation following a string of complaints that his comments about the burka breached the Conservative Party's code of conduct.
The investigation represents the first step in any disciplinary process, which could ultimately lead to Mr Johnson being expelled or suspended from the party, a verdict that would almost certainly have to be signed off by Theresa May.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph on Monday, Mr Johnson compared women in burkas to "letterboxes" and "bank robbers" . Conservative Party sources said dozens of complaints about the column had been received and it was important they were properly examined.
The party’s code of conduct says MPs and other holders of public office should “not use their position to bully, abuse, victimise, harass or unlawfully discriminate against others” and should “foster respect and tolerance”. It promises that complaints will be investigated “in a timely and confidential manner”.
Mr Johnson, who is on holiday, has refused to apologise for his controversial descriptions despite calls for him to do so by the Tory party hierarchy. He was asked to apologise by Brandon Lewis, the chairman, on Tuesday. Prime minister Theresa May said he should use more care in his language.
The party will evaluate the complaints and decide whether to appoint an investigating panel of three to take matters further. If appointed, the investigating panel will comprise three people, including one independent person.
Code of conduct
Mr Lewis will nominate two members of the panel, and because the complaint is about a member of parliament, a third will be nominated by Graham Brady, the chairman of the party's backbench 1922 committee.
Their first task will be to determine if Mr Johnson’s behaviour was in breach of the party’s code or not, and recommend the appropriate level at which it should be resolved. The code of conduct adds: “If appropriate, the complaint may then be referred by the Chairman to the Leader and/or to the Board of the Conservative Party, who shall take such action as they see fit.
“This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, suspension of membership or expulsion from the party.”
A Conservative party spokesman said: “The code of conduct process is strictly confidential.”
Earlier on Thursday, Sajjad Karim, the party's MEP for North-West England, said the Conservatives had to decide between being a "genuine one nation force" or "an English nationalist movement".
Mr Karim said Mr Johnson's comments had pushed the boundaries of acceptable political debate and as a result the party had to decide what future it wanted to embrace.
The MEP accused the former foreign secretary of believing that “the norms and standards of the Conservative party do not apply” to him and complained that party leaders had made “no real attempt to enforce those standards”.
Mr Karim said that, as a result, “the Conservative Party today has to decide whether it will be a genuine one nation political force or an English nationalist movement. In the latter there is no room for diversity and that is where Boris, Farage and others are dragging the party.”
Mr Karim said: “Boris is playing to the gallery that exists at the right of the party” and by refusing to apologise was “positioning himself as the great defender of the right some believe they have to say whatever they like with no regard of consequences for others”.
He added: “This further pushes the boundaries of acceptable political debate into an ever more extreme place.”
Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick said Mr Johnson’s remarks would not “reach the bar” for a criminal offence.
“I know that many people have found this offensive. I also know that many other people believe strongly that in the whole of the article, what Mr Johnson appears to have been attempting to do was to say that there shouldn’t be a ban and that he was engaging in a legitimate debate.”
Asked what she made of the language the former foreign secretary used, the commissioner told the BBC Asian Network: “Some people have clearly found it offensive.
“I spoke last night to my very experienced officers who deal with hate crime and, although we have not yet received any allegation of such a crime, I can tell you that my preliminary view having spoken to them is that what Mr Johnson said would not reach the bar for a criminal offence. He did not commit a criminal offence.” – Guardian