By Rowena Mason and Jessica Elgot
Tory and Labour MPs demand action after foreign secretary said Libyan city of Sirte could be next Dubai once it ‘cleared the dead bodies away’
Theresa May is facing calls to sack Boris Johnson from her own backbenchers after he said a war-torn Libyan city only had to “clear the dead bodies away” to become a world-class tourist and business destination.
Johnson was accused by Labour of being “unbelievably crass, callous and cruel” about those who died in the battle to reclaim Sirte from Islamic State (Isis), after he was asked at the Conservative party conference what it was like visiting Libya as foreign secretary.
Speaking about the potential of Sirte, the Libyan city where Muammar Gaddafi was killed, Johnson drew gasps and embarrassed laughter from the audience when he said: “There’s a group of UK business people, wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte, on the coast, near where Gaddafi was actually captured and executed as some of you may have seen.
Boris Johnson: Sirte needs to ‘clear dead bodies away’ – audio
“And they literally have a brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, to turn it into the next Dubai. The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then they’ll be there.”
Heidi Allen was the first Tory MP to call for Johnson to lose his cabinet job over the Libya remarks. She said late on Tuesday that it was “100% unacceptable from anyone, let alone the foreign secretary”, adding: “Boris must be sacked for this. He does not represent my party.”
Her Conservative colleague Sarah Wollaston MP joined in the criticism of Johnson, adding: “Demeaning jokes about real people murdered in Libya would be crass even from a standup; appalled to hear this from our foreign secretary.”
Anna Soubry, the former Tory cabinet minister, said Johnson was “embarrassing and the PM should sack him”.
On Wednesday, Wollaston said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Johnson’s remarks were “crass, poorly judged and grossly insensitive” and calling for him to apologise and “consider his position”.
Instead of apologising, Johnson attacked his critics on Twitter late on Tuesday night. “Shame people with no knowledge or understanding of Libya want to play politics with the appallingly dangerous reality in Sirte,” he tweeted.
“The reality there is that the clearing of corpses of Daesh fighters has been made much more difficult by IEDs and booby traps. That’s why Britain is playing a key role in reconstruction and why I have visited Libya twice this year in support.”
On Wednesday, Damian Green, the first secretary of state, defended the foreign secretary on Sky News but said he needed to choose his words more carefully.
“I think we all need to be very careful in our choice of language and Boris explained in a series of tweets afterwards the complexity of the situation in Libya, that the bodies he was referring to are often Daesh fighters who have been booby-trapped,” he said.
“We should all be careful in our language in relation to sensitive and difficult situations like Libya … including Boris.”
Green said Johnson had “explained that he wasn’t making a joke” despite the awkward laughter from the audience in the room after the comments.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said he could not defend Johnson’s views. “It’s not language that we as a government support. Boris is Boris and that was very unfortunate language. I don’t want to defend that,” he told the BBC.
Johnson dodged further questions about his comments as he was chased by television cameras on Wednesday morning.
Two senior opposition politicians said the comment was in such bad taste that Johnson was not fit to be foreign secretary.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, said: “It is less than a year since Sirte was finally captured from Daesh by the Libyan government of national accord, a battle in which hundreds of government soldiers were killed and thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire, the second time in five years that the city had seen massive loss of life as a result of the Libyan civil war.
“For Boris Johnson to treat those deaths as a joke – a mere inconvenience before UK business people can turn the city into a beach resort – is unbelievably crass, callous and cruel.
“If these words came from the business people themselves, it would be considered offensive enough, but for them to come from the foreign secretary is simply a disgrace.
“There comes a time when the buffoonery needs to stop, because if Boris Johnson thinks the bodies of those brave government soldiers and innocent civilians killed in Sirte are a suitable subject for throwaway humour, he does not belong in the office of foreign secretary.”
Heidi Allen became the first Tory MP to call for Johnson to step down.
Jo Swinson, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Diplomacy is a basic requirement for the role of foreign secretary.
“This latest unbelievably crass and insensitive comment about an issue of such importance is further proof Boris is not up to the job. May needs to get her house in order and sack him.”
Rowena Mason is deputy political editor for the Guardian
Jessica Elgot is a political reporter for the Guardian. She was previously the Huffington Post UK’s assistant news editor.