“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad,” Conservative columnist, commentator, cult icon – and frontbencher – Boris Johnson wrote last week in the London Daily Telegraph. “You have only to read the latest memo from Downing Street to see that something in the bunker has finally snapped… For ten years, we in the Tory party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing; and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party.”

Whoops! The floppy haired formed Spectator editor has a witty – if idiosyncratic – turn of phrase. But not everyone gets it – or appreciates his writing. So poor old Boris has now been caught up in the most engaging row about Tories, foreign affairs and political correctness since the late Alan Clark made his celebrated comments on “Bongo-Bongo land”.

2006, of course, marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the British Empire – the ignominy of Suez. Former US secretary of state Dean Acheson’s observation “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role” still applies. That may explain Boris’s remarks.

The PNG government, however, has not been amused. Jean Kekedo, the PNG High Commissioner in London, said “I am shocked and appalled by such comments from a seemingly well-educated person of very high standing — in fact the alternative minister for higher education in the House of Commons.”

Kekedo has admitted PNG’s problems with crime and the occasional corrupt police officer, but says that that cannibalism had ceased to be an everyday occurrence with the introduction of Christianity some two centuries ago. Chief-killing is now also similarly frowned upon. Indeed, PNG, she claims, has grown into a vibrant democracy where people dine together rather than on each other. She has informed her government of the “Honourable Johnson’s” insult and sent a note of protest to the Foreign Office.

Boris seems suitable chastened. He has issued an apology – which says in part: “I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea, who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.”