There will be “open warfare” in the Conservative Party if Boris Johnson is severely disciplined over his burka comments, an MP has said.
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, a supporter of Mr Johnson, issued the warning in the event the former foreign secretary is suspended in such a way that he cannot not take part in a future leadership contest.
But Mr Bridgen told the Sunday Express: “If Boris is suspended it will be open warfare in the Conservative Party.
“If Theresa May dares engineer a leadership contest while Boris is suspended it will be World War Three.”
His comments came as the Tories risked remaining engulfed in a row that is refusing to go away, despite the public appearing to reject any attempt to censure the Uxbridge MP.
A ComRes survey for the Sunday Express found 53% opposed to punishing Mr Johnson, against 40% who said he should be disciplined.
The poll also found that 60% of those who responded believed rights to free speech were being weakened, compared to just 5% who said they were stronger.
It comes after a slim majority (48% to 45%) of people told a Sky Data poll it was not necessary for Mr Johnson to apologise.
The ex-cabinet minister refused to comment as he arrived back in England from a holiday in Italy on Saturday night.
Speculation is mounting that he will respond in the weekly column he writes for The Daily Telegraph, in which the initial controversial comments were printed last week.
The Brexiteer is under fire for claiming Muslim women wearing face veils look like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” as he argued against any ban on burkas or niqabs of the type that has been brought in by some EU countries.
Conservative chair Brandon Lewis has instructed an independent panel to investigate Mr Johnson following complaints his comments breached the Tories’ code of conduct.
Fellow Leave campaigner Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed on Saturday that critics of Boris Johnson are jealous of his popularity and the investigation could be an attempt to undermine any future leadership bid.
The ComRes poll found that Theresa May remained the preferred leader of the Conservatives among the public, by a margin of 26% to 24% opting for Boris Johnson, with 42% supporting “neither”.
Despite the threat of a split in the party over the issue, senior figures continued to speak out.
Mr Johnson’s own father Stanley Johnson, a former Conservative MP, was among those to defend his son, but said he should have called for a burka ban.
He said: “Yes, Boris used some colourful language. That’s called ‘freedom of speech’ or it was in my day.
“As a matter of fact, I would have liked him to have gone a bit further. Surely, there are circumstances where a ban or appropriate restrictions would be in order.”
David Wall, the secretary of the Midlands Industrial Council, the members of which give millions to the Conservatives every year, said the row was “an argument over relatively nothing”, and said Mr Johnson should not be disciplined.
But former close aide to David Cameron, Lord (Andrew) Cooper, accused Mr Johnson on Saturday of “casual racism” and “courting of fascism”.
“He will advocate literally anything to play to the crowd of the moment. His career is a saga of moral emptiness and lies; pathetic, weak and needy; the opposite of strong,” Lord Cooper said.
And the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said on Saturday that Conservative MPs’ support for Boris Johnson over his comments comparing Muslim women in burkas to bank robbers had “shone a light on the underbelly of Islamophobia” within the party.
Far-right US activist Steve Bannon, who contacted Mr Johnson during a recent visit to Britain, advised his fellow EU opponent not to “bow at the altar of political correctness” by apologising.