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British PM May slaps down foreign minister over Saudi comments

This is the latest in a series of gaffes to plague Boris Johnson, who even Theresa May has jokingly said is hard to keep 'on message for a full four days'

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was not setting out government policy when he said Saudi Arabia and Iran were stoking proxy wars across the Middle East, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Theresa May said today.

Johnson, known for his colourful use of language and tendency to go off-script, told an audience in Rome last week that the absence of real leadership in the Middle East had allowed people to twist religion and stoke proxy wars.

It is the latest in a series of gaffes to plague the foreign minister, who even May has jokingly said is hard to keep “on message for a full four days”. He has been criticised by some EU officials for using less-than-diplomatic language in talks on Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.

May’s quick response underlines the importance of Britain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which is a major customer for British defence companies.

“You’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars. And it is a tragedy to watch it,” Johnson was shown saying in footage posted online.

“There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives. That’s one of the biggest political problems in the whole region,” Johnson said.

It is unclear from the footage whether he specifically accused Saudi and Iran of twisting religion.

The spokeswoman for May said: “Those are the foreign secretary’s views, they are not the government’s position on for example Saudi and its role in the region.”

May, who visited the Middle East this week, met Saudi King Salman and “set out very clearly the government’s view on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, that it is a vital partner for the UK particularly on counter-terrorism”, she said.

“We want to strengthen that relationship.”

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