NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Just as British ministers were hoping to win EU leaders' support for their newly revealed Brexit plan, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson raised hackles by comparing any attempt to punish Britain to a World War Two escape movie.
He was visiting New Delhi a day after Prime Minister Theresa May laid out the case for a "hard Brexit."
The wartime comment came as he answered a question on remarks made earlier by an aide to French President Francois Hollande who said Britain should not expect a better trading relationship with Europe once it had left.
"If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings that anyone chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don't think that's the way forward," Johnson answered.
He was swiftly condemned by the European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt who said on Twitter: "Yet more abhorrent & deeply unhelpful comments from @BorisJohnson which PM May should condemn."
But May's spokeswoman played down the incident.
"The Foreign Secretary was making a point about the risks of people approaching this in a punitive way. I certainly don't accept the interpretation that some have put on it," she said.
"He was making a theatrical comparison to some of those evocative World War movies that people have seen. He was in no way suggesting that anyone was a Nazi."
In his prepared remarks to the Raisina Dialogue, a geopolitical conference hosted by the Indian foreign ministry and the Observer Research Foundation, Johnson, 52, said Britain should embrace free trade not only with Europe but with the wider world.
Free trade would help to create jobs for those who see their livelihoods threatened, many of whom voted for Brexit, while vast wealth accrues to a tiny but powerful global elite.
"They fear that they may be the first generation not to be overtaken in prosperity by their children," he said. "I don't think these people should be patronised or dismissed."
London, the British capital of which he was previously mayor, would not lose its status as a global financial centre even outside the EU, he added.
Johnson endorsed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for tension in the South China Sea to be addressed under a rules-based order and said Britain stood with India in its fight against terrorism.
But, complaining of the 150 percent import tariff India charges on Scotch whisky, he said it was time for Britain and Asia's third-largest economy to strike a free trade deal.
additional reprting by Stephen Addison in London; editing by Andy Bruce