Boris Johnson forced to apologise for “sexist” reference to Labour’s Emily Thornberry

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Moya Crockett
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The foreign secretary disparagingly referred to his Labour counterpart using her husband’s surname and title. 

Boris Johnson has apologised after referring to a female Labour politician by her husband’s name and title, saying he was sorry for “any inadvertent sexism or discourtesy” he may have been accused of.

At Foreign Office questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the foreign secretary was reprimanded for describing Emily Thornberry dismissively as “Lady Nugee”. The Guardian reports that he made the comments while answering a question about the value of the Commonwealth, which segued into a criticism of the Labour frontbench and Thornberry – the shadow foreign secretary – in particular.

“‘No’ says the Labour frontbench, that’s their attitude, that’s their attitude, isn’t that extraordinary, this is an institution,” Johnson said.

“‘Say no,’ says the noble and learned Lady Baroness whatever it is, I can’t remember what it is… Nugee.”

Thornberry, who is also the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, is married to the High Court judge Sir Christopher Nugee. Nugee was knighted in 2014, which means that Thornberry could style herself as Lady Nugee if she chose.

However, Thornberry – a staunch feminist who was raised on a council estate in Kent – has never gone by her husband’s surname or used his title. 

Emily Thornberry (left) with shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler 

After describing Thornberry in this manner, Johnson was interrupted by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, who rebuked him for being “sexist”.

“First, we do not name call in this chamber, and secondly… we do not address people by the titles of their spouses. The shadow foreign secretary has a name, and it is not ‘Lady Something’.”

Bercow continued: “We know what her name is and it is inappropriate and frankly sexist to speak in those terms, and I am not having it in this chamber. That is the end of the matter.

“That parlance is not legitimate and it will not be allowed, and it will be called out.”

The Speaker’s criticism of Johnson drew applause from Labour MPs, prompting the foreign secretary to formally apologise. After saying that he wanted to prostrate himself in front of the Speaker, Johnson told Bercow he was sorry for “any inadvertent sexism or discourtesy that you may have deemed me to be guilty of”.

He added: “I heartily tender my apologies to the right honourable lady if she was offended by what I said and I meant no harm. And I apologise unreservedly to her if I have offended the feelings of the right honourable lady.”

As yet, there have been no reports on how Thornberry reacted to Johnson’s comments – but we’d like to think her response involved a very dramatic eye roll.

Images: Getty Images