THERESA May dodged questions on Boris Johnson’s attack on the burka, saying merely that her former foreign secretary’s language had “clearly offended people”.

The Old Etonian’s comments in Monday’s Telegraph dominated the Prime Minister’s visit to Edinburgh yesterday. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who met with the Tory leader, said Johnson’s remarks were unequivocally Islamophobic and suggested he knew exactly what he was doing when he made them.

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“My views on Boris Johnson’s comments are that they are reprehensible and disgraceful,” Sturgeon told journalists after meeting May.

“They are deliberate though, and deliberately provocative. I’m a wee bit cynical about these calls for him to apologise.

“You call for someone to apologise if they have made a mistake, Boris Johnson didn’t make mistake.

“He knew what he was doing and it’s a kind of dog-whistle politics that he’s indulging in. It is Islamophobia and I think it’s pretty outrageous.”

In a column about the recent burka ban introduced in Denmark, Johnson said schools and universities should be legally allowed to tell students to remove a veil if a student “turns up … looking like a bank robber”. “It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any – invariably male – government to encourage such demonstrations of ‘modesty’,” he wrote.

Businesses and government agencies should be able to “enforce a dress code that enables their employees to interact with customers”, including by allowing them to see their faces, Johnson said.

The burka was, he said, “ridiculous” and “weird”.

Even Tory Party chairman Brandon Lewis called for an apology but Johnson refused to back down.

The National:

A source close to Johnson told the BBC that the Tory “won’t be apologising”, adding it was “ridiculous” to attack his views.

“We must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues,” the source added.

“We have to call it out. If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we are simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists.”

When asked about the issue, May replied: “I am very clear, and the government is very clear about our position on the issue of the burka, which is that women should be able to choose how to dress. It’s up to a woman to decide how to dress. It’s not up to other women to decide how to dress, it’s not up to other people to tell a woman how to dress.

“Obviously these issues are ones that are openly discussed and it’s right that we have discussion about issues like this, but in doing so we all have to very careful about the language and the terms that we use. And some of the terms that Boris used in describing people’s appearance obviously have offended people and I agree with Brandon Lewis.”

May refused to say if the whip should be removed from Johnson, and she refused to say if she thought the remarks were Islamophobic.

There were plenty of other Tories who rushed to Johnson’s support.

MP Andrew Bridgen admitted he felt uncomfortable talking to women wearing burkas. May refused to say if she thought that a fair comment.

Tory peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi attacked the party. “What I’m really offended by is that Muslim women need to stop being a convenient political football to increase poll ratings among the Tory faithful,” she told Channel 4 News on Monday night.

She added: “The tragedy is that, sadly, in my party these words, this offensive language, this type of writing, this abusive approach, is not just a cheap shot, it’s actually a free pass because there are no consequences that follow when these kind of statements are made.”

Tories north of the Border have also had problems with Islamophobia recently. Earlier this year, the National revealed a Tory councillor in North Lanarkshire, Stephen Goldsack, was a former BNP “Scottish security adviser”. He was subsequently expelled from the Conservative Party

In Midlothian, council election candidate George McIntyre, was suspended for saying “whingeing” Muslims should be told to “sod off”.