Labour has called for an investigation into the conduct of Boris Johnson after he attended an event that promoted his book about Winston Churchill during an official diplomatic trip to Serbia.
Andrew Gwynne, the shadow cabinet office minister, has written to the prime minister, the head of the civil service and the ethics chief at the Cabinet Office to complain that Johnson may have breached the ministerial code of conduct.
The Guardian revealed that the foreign secretary discussed The Churchill Factor, his biography of the wartime prime minister, and signed some copies at a bookshop in Belgrade on the second day of an official diplomatic trip last month.
Gwynne said Johnson had questions to answer about whether there was a conflict between the foreign secretary’s private and public interests, after Labour gathered evidence that the signing was heavily promoted by the bookshop beforehand as an event about Churchill.
A promotional advert appeared in the daily newspaper Danas, accompanied by a picture of Johnson.
Gwynne wrote: “In light of the foreign secretary’s conduct during a ministerial visit to Serbia, I request that the incident be investigated to determine as soon as possible if a breach of the ministerial code has taken place.”
The code states that ministers must ensure that “no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests”.
When the Guardian first reported the book signing, Johnson’s office said it was “absolutely not a promotional event” and that it would be “completely wrong” to suggest he was doing any intentional publicity around the book. The foreign secretary had gone to the bookshop to speak about press freedom, his office said.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said at the time: “The foreign secretary was invited to talk about freedom of the press at the oldest known bookstore in Belgrade. The store chose to welcome him by putting some of his books on display and some local people asked him to sign their books.”
In a related development, a second picture has emerged of Johnson holding a signed copy of the same book at an event in Lahore while on a diplomatic trip to Pakistan several weeks later in November.
Clive Lewis, the shadow business secretary, questioned whether Johnson was able to serve as foreign secretary. “Once again, Boris Johnson’s conduct has raised questions on his ability to represent Britain internationally, let alone hold the office of foreign secretary,” he said.
“It is not acceptable that on Armistice Day this year, Boris used a state visit as an opportunity for self-promotion. I echo Andrew’s calls for this incident to be investigated, and if found to be a breach of the ministerial code, the prime minister needs to consider Boris’s future in his post as foreign secretary.”
Johnson has given copies of The Churchill Factor as gifts to Murray McCully, the New Zealand foreign minister, after diplomatic meetings.
A Foreign Office source has said the book was given away by the foreign secretary only occasionally when information suggested that the gift would be welcomed by a foreign visitor or host.
The source said Johnson’s team had specifically requested in advance for the event not to be about the Churchill Factor but press freedom.
A spokesman for Johnson added: “The Serbian newspaper making the suggestion this was a promotional event is simply wrong and wasn’t even at the event. We have said before that this was not a promotional event and we made that request very clear in advance of the trip.
“The event took place in a closed bookshop and focused on press freedoms. Maybe Labour should focus on coming up with some policies for the good of the country instead of wasting everyone’s time on this kind of rubbish.”
It is understood Johnson was pictured with the Churchill Factor in Pakistan because it was a gift to a minister who said in advance that he liked the book.
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