Move over Brexit, Tories’ new battle is about free speech

LONDON — The U.K. Conservative Party is embarking on a new ideological bust-up — and this time it isn’t about Europe.

The Tories’ summer fight over former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s newspaper column likening Muslim women wearing a burqa or niqab to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” is a foretaste of a different set of policy divisions that go beyond the party’s bitter Brexit war.

Yes Johnson has plenty of enemies, both personal and ideological, which helped amplify the criticism of his Muslim comments — “It was all about punishing him, stopping him, getting him thrown out of the party. It was disgraceful,” said Tory Brexiteer MEP David Campbell-Bannerman — but the ideological differences at the heart of the fight run deeper than the divisive Johnson or his views on Brexit.

“[People] may not agree with the tone or the jokes,” said former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, but he argued that Johnson was exercising his “freedom of speech.” Even comedian and “Mr. Bean” creator Rowan Atkinson defended Johnson’s right to offend. “All jokes about religion cause offense, so it’s pointless apologizing for them,” he said.

It is this divide on the limits of free speech, and what politicians should do to curb free expression online and rein in digital behemoths like Google, Apple and Facebook, that is at the heart of a looming fight within the U.K.’s governing party.

“One needs to look at the legalese on it very carefully and understand the actual impacts” — David Campbell-Bannerman

MPs face pressure to curb the power of the internet giants and to police a digital “Wild West” where sexism and hate speech is rife.

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