What is a mugwump? Many scurried to the dictionary or googled the word, but the latest missile by the one and only Boris Johnson – better known in British politics as that lovable rogue – sent many into a tizzy as election rhetoric scaled new highs – or rather, lows.
Johnson, who is foreign secretary in the Theresa May government, was on Wednesday night dangling the heady prospect of India lowering 150% tariff on Scotch in a post-Brexit trade deal, and hours later shot off the wordy ‘mugwump’ missile at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Both interventions ensured that he was very much in the Tory election lineup, belying reports that Prime Minister Theresa May had sidelined him. Johnson, a leading Brexiteer, faces much criticism for allegedly lying about how much money the UK sends Brussels as an EU member.
For the record, the origins of ‘mugwump’ lie in 19th century American politics, referring to a person who chooses to remain independent or aloof from party politics. Many were left wondering how the epithet could be used for Corbyn, now twice elected leader of Labour.
On Johnson’s Scotch, it is a different matter that New Delhi has been watching with some amusement at top British ministers turning up to talk up prospects of a trade deal, even though no talks can even begin until Brexit is completed in 2019 – if at all.
But Johnson offered this at the lord mayor’s banquet: “If we can crack markets like that, think what we can do when we have free trade deals with America, where they still have a ban on British haggis. Think of our potential whisky sales to India if only we could negotiate a cut in their duty of 150% on Scotch.”
Johnson called Corbyn “that mutton-headed old mugwump” in a piece for in The Sun on Thursday, and defended it in morning radio and television broadcasts. Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown remarked that a clown’s place was in a circus, not in government.
It also prompted a scathing response from Labour leader John Healy, who said the colourful language “demeaned the position of foreign secretary”, calling it was the kind of “look at me name-calling you would expect in an Eton playground.”
Reducing high tariffs in India on Scotch whisky and automobiles is one of the top challenges of a future free trade agreement with India. The Scotch whisky industry has long been demanding lower tariffs to cater to high demand in India.
Latest figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show that the volume of 70cl bottles exported to India between January and June 2016 jumped to 41 million from 29.1 million in the same period in 2015, with value by 28% to £43 million.