Downing Street has rebuked Boris Johnson for saying a war-torn Libyan city only had to “clear the dead bodies away” to become a world-class tourist destination, after Theresa May faced calls from her own MPs to sack him.
A senior Downing Street source said it was a matter for Johnson as to whether he apologised, but added: “We did not feel it was an appropriate choice of words.”
Johnson drew gasps and embarrassed laughter from an audience at a Conservative conference fringe event on Tuesday when, speaking about the potential of Sirte, the Libyan city where Muammar Gaddafi was killed, 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.
“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.”
The foreign secretary was criticised by leading Libyan politicians after the remarks were swiftly reported on local websites and social media. Speaking to the Libyan Herald, Salah Shubi, a member of the country’s House of Representatives, said: “It is cruel and unacceptable that the head of British diplomacy speaks and behaves in such a manner.”
Shubi, who is regarded as an ally of the UK because he previously worked at the British Council, asked: “Is this a reflection of the British government’s current views on Libya? Because this is not the UK that I know.”
He added: “Keeping Boris Johnson or sacking him will be the difference between seeking ties and investments in #Libya that are built through mutually beneficial partnerships and respectful friendship with Libyans – or built on ‘their dead bodies’ if Boris gets his way!”
Oliver Miles, a former UK ambassador to Libya and deputy chair of the Libyan British Business Council, told the Middle East Eye that Johnson’s remarks were another example of his “inability to keep his mouth shut”.
Miles said: “We have already seen reaction in Libya suggesting that these dead bodies are people who had fought Islamic State and they deserve to be honoured. And it’s exaggerated to say there are lots and lots of companies ready to pour in to Libya. It was silly thing to say. Loose lips in diplomacy don’t pay. We are some way from major UK firms investing in Libya.”