A question for Boris: do voters really want a chat show star running their country?

Does he drift to the sideshows of politics while making a very good living as a music hall entertainer?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is no Commandment which says that "Thou shalt not bear false witness unto the vile rags from the gutters of Fleet St". It is repellent that they should posture as censors of morals. Anyone threatened by their muck-spreading techniques is fully entitled to lie in self-defence.

There is no Commandment which says that "Thou shalt not bear false witness unto the vile rags from the gutters of Fleet St". It is repellent that they should posture as censors of morals. Anyone threatened by their muck-spreading techniques is fully entitled to lie in self-defence.

But it may not have been wise for Boris Johnson to do so. The creatures who call themselves journalists on such newspapers are practised in the black arts of entrapment and intrusion. Before they expose some public figure taken in adultery, they always ensure there is plenty of evidence. Thus forearmed, they relish denials. First, these enable them to indulge in the nauseating hypocrisy of claiming to uphold the truth. Second, they can gloat over their victims wrigglings and misfortunes.

When first confronted, Boris Johnson should really have responded as follows: "My private life is the business of a very small number of people, who do not include you or your readers. Goodbye."' He might even have borrowed a phrase from that great Conservative, the Duke of Wellington: "Publish and be damned." Boris should have remembered that the cover-up often compounds the original offence.

As it was, probably out of panic, he did not exercise sound tactical judgement. This does not mean that Michael Howard was wise to sack him. Admittedly, after the Major years, the Tory party is scarred by the memories of the anti-sleaze campaign which inflicted so much electoral damage, and which continues to overshadow the party's fortunes.

Earlier in the week, however, Mr Howard seemed insouciant. At Thursday's Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year lunch, the Tory leader described the magazine as political Viagra. "Keep it up, Boris: keep it up," he went on to say. That sounded as if the Tory leader was condoning his subordinate's indiscretions. It was almost a case of "Boris will be Boris'".

Yet Mr Howard should have realised - or his aides should certainly have advised him - that the papers almost certainly had further revelations in their armoury. Mr Howard may not have been aware of the rumours which had long passed as fact throughout Westminster and Fleet Street, but the Tory whips ought to have been, and should have issued warnings accordingly.

Over the years, the Tory whips have accustomed themselves to knowing at least as much - and sometimes more - about the average Tory backbencher as his wife does. They always advise new members that if they are ever in danger of getting into trouble, they should for God's sake consult the whips first, before making any statements. The whips are adept at hazard management. If at all possible, they will effect a rescue. If not, they will strive to minimise the damage to the party leadership. If the whips had been doing their duty, it is odd that Mr Howard seemed to strike one tone on Thursday, and another one on Saturday.

Putting Boris Johnson on the Tory front bench was a calculated risk. On the one hand, there is at most one Tory MP who is better known in the country: Michael Howard himself. There is no one who is more popular than Boris with television audiences who do not normally take any interest in politics or hold politicians in high regard. Boris has helped to give the Tory Party a human and humorous face. In an age when celebrity status seems to count for so much, it might be useful for Mr Howard to have a spectacular celebrity Tory MP.

On the other hand, this may underrate the voters' common sense. I once upset Margaret Thatcher by suggesting a line which one of her supporters could take in a speech about her. He could invite his audience to consider whom they would rather have as a next door neighbour: Margaret Thatcher or Neil Kinnock. He would also suggest the answer: Neil Kinnock every time.

The Kinnock household would be friendly, noisy and not unchaotic. Its inhabitants would regularly be popping round to borrow something that they had run out of. So their neighbours need never feel looked down on or embarrassed by their own shortcomings. The husband coming back well dined and fishing for his door key at three in the morning need not be worried about critical eyes peering at him through the neighbouring curtains.

The Thatcher household would not be in the least disorganised. Mrs Thatcher would never pop round because she needed to borrow something in a hurry. She would never refuse to lend, of course, but there would be the constant sense that she could not understand how other people got themselves into such a muddle. At this point, Mrs Thatcher interrupted. "You're implying that I'd be a bad neighbour. What a terrible thing to say." "No," I replied: "I'm saying that the voters do not want the bloke next door to run the country."

Nor do they necessarily want the star of the chat show. They may laugh with Boris Johnson, and at him. But they can make a distinction between light entertainment and the serious business of politics.

This is not to say that Boris is incapable of being serious. Under the goofiness and the bumbledom, there is a good brain. But he is often reluctant to use it. Boris is about as quick mentally as anyone I have ever met, but that is one of his problems. After beating everyone else in a 30-second dash, he will then give up. When he was adopted as a Tory candidate, I remember saying over dinner that he would certainly become a senior Cabinet minister. One wise old Tory shook his head and said that he was not so sure. He thought that Boris enjoyed clowning too much. One day, the wind would change and he would be frozen forever in the clown's posture. So far, the old Tory has no reason to regret his judgement - but if he is ultimately proved right, it will be a waste and Boris will only have himself to blame.

During his brief period on the front bench, he never behaved like a frontbencher. He appeared to believe that he could flibbertigibbet his way through Parliamentary performances and rely on charm to cover the fact that he had neglected to provide himself with any substance.

Now that he is no longer on the front bench, he will have to decide what he wants to do. Does he want to drift to the sideshows of politics while making an extremely good living as a music hall entertainer? Or does he want to find some way of mobilising his intellectual resources and turning them into a serious political stance? He could do that, if he wanted. If he decides against the path of seriousness, it will be his party's loss, but also his.

There is only one other conclusion to be drawn from this ridiculous affair. They do order such matters better in France. The French would regard it as absurd to sack a politician because of sexual impropriety. It is not as if Boris used the pages of the Spectator to demand the recriminalisation of adultery. The quicker that we have a law of privacy to curb the sordid squalor of the sewage press, the healthier our public life will be.