Boris Johnson faced humiliation at prime minister’s questions when MPs clapped and cheered a Labour backbencher who demanded he apologise for comparing Muslim women to letterboxes and launch an inquiry into Islamophobia.
In a damning rebuke from Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the Commons’ first turbaned Sikh MP, Johnson was forced to address his 2018 Daily Telegraph column in which he said it was absolutely ridiculous that women should go around resembling letterboxes and bank robbers.
Addressing the prime minister, Dhesi said: “For those of us who from a young age have had to endure and face up to being called names such as towel-head, or Taliban, or coming from bongo-bongo land, we can fully appreciate the hurt and pain of already vulnerable Muslim women when they are described as looking like bank robbers and letterboxes.
“Rather than hide behind sham and whitewash investigations, when will the prime minister finally apologise for his derogatory and racist remarks?”
He asked when Johnson was going to order an inquiry into Islamophobia within the Conservative party, adding it was “something he and his chancellor promised on national television”.
The MP for Slough, 41, was cheered by Labour colleagues shouting: “Go on Tan” during his passionate address and applauded after his question, a rare move by MPs who by convention are not supposed to clap in the Commons.
Johnson notably ducked giving an answer on when he would launch an inquiry into Islamophobia within the party, which critics believe he is keen to avoid. Instead he turned the tables on Labour and said it should apologise for the rise in antisemitism within the party.
Amid shouts and jeers from Labour MPs, the prime minister replied: “If he took the trouble to read the article in question he would see that it was a strong liberal defence, as he began his question by saying, of everybody’s right to wear whatever they want in this country.
“And I speak as somebody who is not only proud to have Muslim ancestors … but to be related to Sikhs such as himself. And I’m also proud to say that under this government we have the most diverse cabinet in the history of this country and we truly reflect modern Britain.”
Earlier this week, the monitoring organisation Tell Mama found that the number of incidents of anti-Muslim hate crime rose by 375% in the week after Johnson compared Muslim women who wear burqas to letterboxes.
In response to the report, the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said Muslims and people of all faiths must feel safe in Britain.