Boris Johnson is facing calls to apologise after saying a Libyan city could become the next Dubai once it had cleared the dead bodies away.
Damian Green, the de facto deputy prime minister, slapped down his Cabinet colleague, telling Sky News: “Everyone, including Boris, needs to be careful in their use of language.”
The First Secretary of State said Mr Johnson’s remarks were unacceptable.
He added to BBC 5 live Breakfast: “Let me be clear: it was not an acceptable use of… it was not a sensitive use of language.
“As I say, we all need to be sensitive in our use of language, particularly in situations like that.”
Others have called for the Foreign Secretary to be sacked – including fellow Tory MP Heidi Allen.
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She tweeted: “100% unacceptable from anyone, let alone foreign sec. Boris must be sacked for this. He does not represent my party.”
Tory MP Sarah Wollaston told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “Well I think these remarks were crass, poorly judged, grossly insensitive and this is from the person who is representing us on the world stage, I think this is really disappointing.”
She added: “Of course he should unequivocally apologise, not sort of try to justify those kinds of remarks and the way in which it was said.
“I think he should consider his position.”
Mr Johnson was made to “move on” after he told Tory activists that investors want to transform the coastal city of Sirte, where dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed during the 2011 civil war, into a new version of the emirate.
But when he said their only obstacle is to “clear the dead bodies away”, the host of the conference fringe event stepped in.
As Mr Johnson continued to speak, Baroness Stroud, a former special adviser to ex-Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith, said: “Next question.”
The Legatum Institute chief executive added: “The dead bodies was the move-on moment.”
100% unacceptable from anyone, let alone foreign sec. Boris must be sacked for this. He does not represent my party. https://t.co/v2RHlbjlnB
— Heidi Allen (@heidiallen75) October 3, 2017
Demeaning jokes about real people murdered in Libya would be crass even from a stand up; appalled to hear this from our Foreign Secretary
— Sarah Wollaston (@sarahwollaston) October 3, 2017
Mr Johnson had been asked about his recent visit to the country, which has been wracked by violence since the fall of its former leader.
The Foreign Secretary said: “I look at Libya, it’s an incredible country.
“Bone white sands, beautiful sea, Caesar’s Palace, obviously, you know, the real one.
“Incredible place. It’s got a real potential and brilliant young people who want to do all sorts of tech.
“There’s a group of UK business people, actually, some wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte on the coast, near where Gaddafi was captured and executed, as some of you may have seen.
“They have got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai.”
He added: “The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away,” before laughing.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said the remarks were “unbelievably crass, callous and cruel”.
She added: “If these words came from the business people themselves, it would be considered offensive enough, but for them to come from the Foreign Secretary is simply a disgrace.
“There comes a time when the buffoonery needs to stop, because if Boris Johnson thinks the bodies of those brave government soldiers and innocent civilians killed in Sirte are a suitable subject for throwaway humour, he does not belong in the office of Foreign Secretary.”
Others have called for Mr Johnson to be sacked:
If Boris comments are as reported he has to resign or be sacked.
— (((Dan Hodges))) (@DPJHodges) October 3, 2017
Stop defending the indefensible. Boris Johnson needs to resign or be sacked.
— Jokey Poyntz (@mummajokey) October 4, 2017
#borisjohnson must be sacked. Otherwise it’s clear that this govt has NO morality.
— paul allender (@pauliepaul1) October 4, 2017
But Mr Johnson has hit back at the furore, tweeting: “Shame people with no knowledge or understanding of Libya want to play politics with the appallingly dangerous reality in Sirte.
Shame people with no knowledge or understanding of Libya want to play politics with the appallingly dangerous reality in Sirte
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 3, 2017
“The reality there is that the clearing of corpses of Daesh fighters has been made much more difficult by IEDs and booby traps.
“That’s why Britain is playing a key role in reconstruction and why I have visited Libya twice this year in support.”