Tory front bench split over Howard's show of strength

By Cahal Milmo
Monday 15 November 2004 01:00
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Senior Tories appeared divided yesterday over the sacking of the shadow Arts minister Boris Johnson over claims that he lied about an alleged affair.

Senior Tories appeared divided yesterday over the sacking of the shadow Arts minister Boris Johnson over claims that he lied about an alleged affair.

Michael Howard "relieved him of his responsibilities" on Saturday night within two hours of learning of renewed allegations about Mr Johnson's relationship with the columnist and socialite Petronella Wyatt.

But as the deceptively bumbling Mr Johnson, who is also editor of The Spectator, went into hiding, his frontbench colleagues failed to provide unanimous support for their leader.

Nicholas Soames, the shadow Defence Secretary and "great personal friend" of Mr Johnson, refused to endorse the sacking and predicted a political comeback. Mr Soames said: "I'm very, very sad and sorry for Boris. It is a very bad moment. All I can say is Boris's political days are certainly not over. He is a very, very good Member of Parliament."

Asked whether he would have dismissed Mr Johnson, Mr Soames said: "That is not a matter for me. That is a matter for the leader of my party."

Other senior Tories backed Mr Howard, emphasising that the 40-year-old MP had not been sacked for his alleged liaison but for a lack of candour.

When claims of an affair with Ms Wyatt, 35, a former deputy editor of The Spectator and now columnist for the right-wing magazine, surfaced two weeks ago, Mr Johnson, who is married with four children, dismissed them, saying: "I have not had an affair with Petronella. It is complete balderdash. It is an inverted pyramid of piffle. It is all completely untrue and ludicrous conjecture."

But his position became untenable for the Tory hierarchy on Saturday night when the News of the World published claims from the mother of Ms Wyatt that her daughter had become pregnant by Mr Johnson and had an abortion last month.

Michael Ancram, the Conservative deputy leader, said Mr Howard had been left with no choice. Speaking on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost, Mr Ancram said: "It was not about his private life and I think it is right that we don't necessarily intrude into people's private lives. It was about something more central than that ... Where Boris was less than frank, that was what could not be sustained. In the end Michael, when he realised Boris had not been frank with him, had to let him go."

Theresa May, the shadow Secretary of State for the Family, also supported Mr Howard's decision, saying that Mr Johnson had denied stories which now appeared to be true.

The Labour Party moved to exploit apparent Tory unease. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, said: "I don't know the details. But it does look something of an over-reaction by the leader of the Conservative Party."

Mr Johnson had been rumoured to be on the verge of resigning from his frontbench post because of the burden of his multiple roles as an MP, shadow minister, magazine editor, guest columnist and contributor to BBC1's Have I Got News For You.

The claims of an affair capped an uncomfortable period for the MP in which he was ordered to visit Liverpool to apologise for a Spectator editorial which accused Liverpudlians of wallowing in grief over the murder of the British hostage Ken Bigley. Yesterday there was a question mark over his job at The Spectator, whose billionaire owners, the Barclay brothers, are known to take a dim view of moral misconduct.

Friends of Mr Johnson, who also lost his role as a Conservative Party vice-chairman, said last night that he was concentrating on saving his marriage and insisted that he would continue as MP for Henley.

His wife, Marina Wheeler, 39, refused to comment on the allegations at their home in north London.

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