Boris Johnson has come under fire after claiming that he did not issue warnings over immigration from Turkey during the 2016 EU referendum.
The former foreign secretary was put on the spot by Channel 4 journalist Michael Crick while answering questions after a speech on Brexit in Staffordshire.
The figurehead of Vote Leave was asked whether he disowned claims made by the campaign that Turkey was about to join the EU and suggestions that this might lead to large-scale immigration to the UK.
He responded: “I didn’t say anything about Turkey in the referendum … Since I made no remarks, I can’t disown them.”
However, Mr Johnson was a signatory to an open letter to then-prime minister David Cameron a week before the referendum vote in June 2016 stating that it was EU policy that Turkey should join, and demanding to know if Britain will veto its accession and block plans for visa-free travel for its citizens.
“If the Government cannot give this guarantee, the public will draw the reasonable conclusion that the only way to avoid having common borders with Turkey is to Vote Leave and take back control on 23 June,” said the letter, signed by Mr Johnson and fellow-Brexiters Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart.
The letter – which mentions Turkey 15 times – is still posted on the Vote Leave website.
In April that year, Mr Johnson – who has Turkish ancestry – was quoted in the Daily Express as saying: “I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is mad – that won’t work.”
However a month earlier, he had acknowledged, in an interview with LBC radio that “the chances of the Turks readily acceding to the European Union are between nil and 20% – probably lower than that”.
Vote Leave produced adverts posted widely on social media during the campaign which stated that “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU” and “Britain’s new border is with Syria and Iraq”.
Some of the targeted ads, which were released by Facebook to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into fake news in 2018, included images of people in Turkey with large red arrows pointing towards the UK.
When it was put to him that he was the leader of the Vote Leave campaign at the time these images were being produced, Mr Johnson replied: “You do me too much honour.
“I was happy to support Leave and I do and I did. I happen to think that immigration can be a wonderful thing for our country, but as I’ve said time and time again, it’s got to be controlled.”
Labour MP Virendra Sharma, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second EU referendum, said: “Boris puts the moron in oxymoron.
“He’s now trying to act the great liberal by championing migration, after shamelessly pushing anti-Turkish messages as a leader of the Vote Leave campaign.”