Downing Street has come to the defence of Boris Johnson after the Foreign Secretary came under fire for comparing French President Francois Hollande to a Second World War guard administering “punishment beatings”.
Mr Johnson’s comments were denounced as “wild and inappropriate” by Labour, which said they would not help Britain negotiate a favourable Brexit deal with the other 27 EU nations.
The Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman brushed off suggestions that the Foreign Secretary should apologise, describing his comments as a “theatrical comparison” and insisting he had not been comparing the French president to a Nazi.
Mr Johnson’s remark came during a visit to India, when he was asked about a reported comment from one of Mr Hollande’s aides, who said Britain should not expect a better trading relationship with Europe from outside the EU.
The Foreign Secretary responded: “If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anyone who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don’t think that’s the way forward.
“It’s not in the interests of our friends or our partners.”
A senior Labour spokesman said: “We are all aware that the Foreign Secretary has a habit of making wild and inappropriate comments.
“Talking about World War Two in that context is another one of those and that is not going to be something that is going to improve the climate for this negotiation.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson should apologise, the Labour spokesman said: “That’s a matter for the Foreign Secretary, but I don’t think threats or wild comparisons and analogies are going to help the negotiations.”
Theresa May’s spokeswoman dismissed the row as a “hyped-up media report”, and said she was not aware of any complaint from the Elysee Palace.
“He was making a point,” she said. “He was in no way suggesting that anyone was a Nazi.”
Asked whether it would be better for Government ministers to avoid wartime comparisons as the UK enters sensitive negotiations with its European neighbours, the spokeswoman said: “There is not a Government policy of not mentioning the war.”
She said Mrs May and the Government were “focused on taking forward our plan for Brexit”.
Labour MP Wes Streeting, a supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said: “It seems the Foreign Secretary has been leafing through his well-thumbed copy of How To Lose Friends And Alienate People.
“Nobody who wants to see a good Brexit deal for Britain should welcome these crass comments. To get a deal that protects our economy and keeps Britain an open, tolerant country, we need to negotiate in good faith and with courtesy with our European partners.
“Treating diplomacy like an old war film is no way for the Foreign Secretary to behave. Boris Johnson should instead focus on working constructively with the rest of Europe to achieve a good deal for Britain.”