A Conservative Party investigation into allegedly Islamophobic comments by Boris Johnson has been denounced as a “show trial” by Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the prominent Eurosceptic suggested that the probe may be an attempt to scupper Mr Johnson’s chances of a future tilt for the leadership, driven by Theresa May’s “personal rivalry” with her former foreign secretary.
There were further signs of grassroots Tory anger over the affair, with the Telegraph giving over its whole letters page to reaction from readers after being “inundated” with messages of support for Mr Johnson.
And it was reported that letters have been sent to the party complaining about chairman Brandon Lewis, whose demand for an apology from Mr Johnson provoked an escalation in the row earlier this week.
Mr Johnson, who is holidaying abroad, is yet to respond to the furore sparked by his article on Monday, in which he opposed a ban on the burka or niqab, but branded the face-covering veils “ridiculous” and “oppressive” and said Muslim women wearing them looked like letter-boxes or bank robbers.
Mr Rees-Mogg suggested the attacks on Mr Johnson’s comment were a reflection of “envy” felt towards him because of “his many successes, popularity with voters and charisma”.
The howls of outrage directed at the former figurehead of the Leave campaign were “suspect” and the motivations of those attacking him “dubious”, said the North East Somerset MP.
“Could it be that there is a nervousness that a once and probably future leadership contender is becoming too popular and needs to be stopped?” asked Mr Rees-Mogg.
“This may explain the attempt to use the Conservative Party’s disciplinary procedures, but it has been handled so ham-fistedly that it brings only sympathy and support for Mr Johnson.”
Conservative sources have insisted that the probe into Mr Johnson’s comments was triggered automatically after the receipt of a number of complaints, one of which is understood to have come from the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Lord Sheikh.
Mr Johnson’s comments on the burka have been branded “inflammatory and divisive” by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but the watchdog made clear it was not launching its own investigation.
The EHRC said that a complaint received from a member of the public did not prompt an inquiry because it did not fall within its remit of investigating breaches of equality law, such as the denial of a service on the grounds of race or religion.
A panel including one independent figure, one representative of the voluntary party and one nominated by the backbench 1922 Committee, will look into complaints that Mr Johnson’s comments breached the Conservative Party’s code of conduct.
Under party rules, the head of the panel may dismiss the complaints if they are found to be obviously trivial, lacking in merit or unable to be fairly investigated.
Disciplinary action could lead to Mr Johnson being suspended or even expelled from the Tories, but would risk igniting civil war in a party many of whose members see him as the best option to succeed Mrs May as leader.
But there have also been suggestions that he could be ordered to attend a diversity training course.