Boris Johnson has denied talking about Turkey during the Brexit referendum campaign, despite having warned on several occasions in the run-up to the vote that Turkish immigration posed a threat to the UK.
Answering questions during a speech in Staffordshire, the former foreign secretary claimed he “didn’t say anything about Turkey in the referendum ... I didn’t say a thing about Turkey”.
But during the referendum campaign, Mr Johnson discussed the issue of immigration from Turkey numerous times, including writing to then prime minister David Cameron to warn him about the issue.
The Vote Leave campaign, of which Mr Johnson was a prominent member, also repeatedly warned voters that the UK faced the prospect of up to 77 million Turks – the entire population of Turkey – coming to the UK if the country was allowed to join the EU.
Speaking after delivering a wide-ranging speech that is likely be seen as a relaunch of his Conservative leadership ambitions, Mr Johnson denied having mentioned Turkey at all during the Brexit campaign.
Asked whether his claims that up to 80 million Turks could enter the UK was evidence that he would “say anything just to win an election – in this case, the Conservative leadership election”, he replied: “Actually, I didn’t say anything about Turkey in the referendum. I didn’t say a thing about Turkey.
“I think anybody who has followed my utterances over the last 20 years would know that I’ve always been in the camp of those who defend and support [immigration].”
Pushed on whether he was “disowning” the comments he made in 2016, he said: ”Since I made no remarks I can’t disown them. I didn’t make any remarks about Turkey.”
In April 2016, Mr Johnson warned: “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.”
And in a joint letter with fellow Brexiteer Michael Gove in June 2016, just a week before the referendum, he wrote to Mr Cameron to insist that the only way to protect the UK from mass immigration from Turkey was to leave the EU.
The letter said: “Despite the rapidly accelerating pace of accession negotiations, ‘In’ campaigners maintain that Turkey ‘is not an issue in this referendum and it shouldn’t be’.
“Others assert that the UK has ‘a veto’ on Turkish accession. This claim is obviously artificial given the government’s commitment to Turkish accession at the earliest possible opportunity.
“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.”
The Vote Leave campaign also included prominent references to Turkey on many of its campaign materials.
One online advert asked: “Turkey’s 76 millon people are joining the EU – good news???”.
And a campaign poster said: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote Leave, take back control.”
Responding to Mr Johnson’s latest claims, Labour MP Virendra Sharma, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign, 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.
“But the government must love it when he gets up and gives these speeches. He’s a helpful clown, distracting from the government’s failures by pushing a no deal that parliament won’t let happen.
“It’s time to stop giving his ill-thought through ideas oxygen, and hand the Brexit decision back to the public through a people’s vote.”