Not for the first time, Boris Johnson has managed to fool large swathes of the country. In 2016, he was the lying face of Leave UK, where Britain voted to pull up the drawbridge to Europe and ensure an unsure and potentially chaotic future. In 2018, Johnson has managed to position himself as the new leader of the hard right with a calculated populist newspaper column about the burka. He may be a self-styled buffoon with no eye for detail but this must be tempered my his ruthless ambition to be prime minister. This week, he has taken a giant step to achieve his ambition.

In comparing women who wear the burka to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, Johnson was tapping into a very ugly mood that is prevalent in Britain, a mood reflected by the levels of popularity in some levels for the convicted criminal and thug Stephen Laxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson. Yaxley-Lennon saw attacks on islam as a way of boosting far right politics in the UK. Johnson, cynical and calculating, has kicked the door of islamophobia wide open.

Daily Mail readers – who else? – have made it clear that they support Johnson and say he is not a racist. That is precisely the kind of reaction Johnson would have wanted to achieve. He has managed the trick of fooling Mail readers into thinking it’s a question of whether what he said was racist or not, but that is not what this sorry debate is all about. It’s not what Johnson said; it’s why he said it.

With the government in a complete mess over Brexit – and even its most vocal supporters will admit that – and the country heavily divided, Johnson is positioning himself for when Theresa May’s miserable spell as PM comes to an end. And he has gained considerable support for his words because, on the face of it, they represent a valid strand of criticism of islam and one in which I would have, in normal circumstances, agreed with.

Like Johnson, I would not ban the burka but I would make it known that there are consequences for wearing it. Wearers could be denied employment, could be refused entry to a variety of places because of their choice of clothing. For me, the burka is a culture too far in our so called multicultural society, an idea which, in any case, as a secularist I do not support, but that’s for another day. But that’s not a debate Johnson wants to get into. His was a soundbite to attract attention and build future support. This is not me being cynical: this is how Johnson operates.

With such a paucity of leadership across British politics, and with the country weak and divided as it takes the road to isolationism away from our natural friends and allies, there is an opportunity for a strong, charismatic leader from the far right to have a major impact in our politics. Many from the American alt-right see Yaxley-Lennon as that man but I believe the danger is closer to home. Johnson’s carefully cultivated bumbling posh buffoon image is loved by many but beneath the comic exterior lies a man with ruthless ambition who will, as we discovered in the EU referendum debate, say anything for a vote.

Boris Johnson a thoroughly modern Mosley? Who knows? Stranger things have happened. We indulge Johnson at our peril. If Johnson is the next PM, these will seem like the good old days.