LONDON – London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leader of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, was facing strong criticism Friday for suggesting U.S. President Barack Obama may have an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire” because of his Kenyan roots.
On a visit to the U.K., Obama weighed in to Britain’s debate about European Union membership, urging voters to back staying in the 28-nation bloc. The president wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper that the EU “enhances Britain’s global leadership.”
His intervention angered campaigners for a “leave” vote in the June 23 referendum, who accused the president of meddling.
Johnson said Obama’s advice was “paradoxical, inconsistent, incoherent” because Americans “would never contemplate anything like the EU for themselves.”
Writing in The Sun newspaper, Johnson recounted a claim that a bust of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was removed from the Oval Office after Obama was elected and returned to the British Embassy.
Johnson wrote that some said removing the bust “was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire, of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
Obama’s late father was from Kenya, a former British colony that gained independence in the 1960s.
Johnson’s comments drew criticism from his political opponents. Former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell said “this attack constitutes an unacceptable smear.”
“Many people will find Boris Johnson’s loaded attack on President Obama’s sincerity deeply offensive,” he said.
Stephen Wall, former British permanent representative to the European Union, said: Johnson’s comment about the president’s Kenyan heritage “is demeaning to the debate,” and Labour Party lawmaker Diane Abbott said that “Boris dismissing president Obama as ‘half-Kenyan’ reflects the worst Tea Party rhetoric.”
The White House has said that the Churchill story is untrue, and the bust is still in a prominent place in the presidential residence.
Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames — like Johnson a Conservative lawmaker — tweeted that Johnson’s article was “totally wrong on almost everything.”
“It is not compulsory to have head of WSC (Winston Spencer Churchill) in President’s office. Stupid irrelevant empty point to make,” he said.
Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party — who told Obama bluntly to “butt out” — supported Johnson’s remark.
“Because of his grandfather and Kenya and colonialization, I think Obama has a bit of a grudge against this country,” he said.