Boris Johnson once had a loose handle on his chaotic affairs – but doing it as prime minister will be impossible

He is hardly the first politician to have an unconventional private life. But as anyone who has done the job attests, the premiership is in an entirely different league

Sean O'Grady@_seanogrady
Tuesday 16 July 2019 09:36
comments
Boris Johnson gets grilled on Gatt 24 by Andrew Neil

The more I ponder the coming of Boris Johnson, the more I worry about the effect his private life will have on his public duties. He likes to keep the two separate, but, in the modern media age, and with all the pressures of Brexit they cannot be hermetically sealed one from the other.

We saw the furore over the row he had with Carrie Symonds. Now some ancient controversies, such as the so-called Guppygate affair are being dredged up. Admittedly a taped phone conversation in which Johnson apparently agrees to assist an old friend from Eton, Darius Guppy, in an attack on a journalist is a serious matter, even if, as Johnson maintains, nothing “eventuated” form the call.

But the reporter concerned, Stuart Collier, took it very seriously and now, 29 years on, is seeking an apology from Johnson. He won’t get it (or at least he’ll get only a “politician’s apology”), but that’s not the point. It seems likely to me that there are many, many more such skeletons to come tumbling out of the closet. They’ll have to boost the Downing Street press team just to keep up with them. You’d hope that the substantial stockpile of scandal would not be added to with fresh stories.

Johnson will need to break some old habits. Can he? He’s never given any indication he wants to just because he’ll be living in Downing Street.

The last time Johnson ran for major public office it was to be mayor of London, back in 2008. He challenged the then supposedly unbeatable Ken Livingstone (whatever happened to him?) and, then as now, there were plenty of wild stories about his extramural activities.

Johnson was given some extremely wise advice by Max Hastings, who’d had the misfortune to be his editor at the Daily Telegraph, and the man we have to thank for appointing Johnson their Brussels correspondent. Anyway, Hastings has told the story thus:

“I remember when Boris was trying to decide whether to run for mayor of London, and he took me out to lunch, and I said he should go for it, I thought he could win, and I thought he’d do it very well, all of which I think I was right about.

“But he said ‘have you got any advice?’ And I said ‘lock up your willy’.”

If Johnson did try and restrain what he once called his “phallocratic phallus” it soon broke free of its moorings, and it has remained at large ever since.

I suppose the question is this. Do we want a prime minister whose full attention is “on the job” in the sense of devoting himself 24/7 to Brexit; or do we want one who may find himself occasionally distracted by personal matters, where his emotions may be in some turmoil even as he tries to solve the Irish backstop?

Of course, Johnson is famously pro-cake and pro-eating it. Accused of suffering from “satyrism”, he has, in the past, written approvingly of, for example, Silvio Berlusconi: “A standing reproach to the parade of platitudinous Pooters that pass across the stage of international diplomacy…they like him not in spite of the gaffes but because of the gaffes.”

Then there is his contemporary defence of Bill Clinton as a victim: “It seems at least conceivable she is lying her head off…Some have implied that the president coerced Miss Lewinsky. What tosh. The more footage we see of the pair together, the more obvious it is that she transpires at every pore with lust to be noticed by the ‘big he’.”

Johnson goes on to expostulate the nearest we’ve seen to a personal manifesto of sexual morality:

“Extramarital sex is said not to be of immediate political relevance, and just a matter for the couple concerned, because it is said to expose a basic treacherousness, ‘If-a-man-can-lie-to-his-wife…’ etc. Oh really? Is Gladstone to be condemned, because of what we now know about his weird work with prostitutes? Was Thomas Jefferson a failure as a president, because he had an affair with a slave-girl? Does it really matter what Palmerston got up to with women in Hyde Park?”

Palmerston, one might add, never had to contend with Popbitch.

Indeed, Johnson thinks that other factors are at work. In a shockingly anti-feminist rant, even for the time, he wrote:

“Does anyone think a bunch of uniformly virtuous politicians would make the slightest difference? Of course they wouldn’t. The decay of marriage, the rise in illegitimacy, are far more directly traceable to female emancipation, unemployment and the vast welfare state, which so often supplants the role of the husband.”

There is, at least, the possibility of some conflict between private and public interests in a Johnson premiership. He might have been able to juggle two or three jobs and various liaisons when he as editor of The Spectator, a higher education shadow spokesman, MP, mayor of London and the rest, but as anyone who has done the job attests, Number 10 is in a different league.

Do we want a prime minister who is the subject of press headlines such as: “Bonking Boris Made Me Pregnant”; “Why do classy women keep falling for Mayor Boris the bumbling cad?”; “BOJO! NO! Boris Johnson, the socialite and her very angry lover”; “Cops called to BoJo and Lover Bust-Up”, and, as in the Private Eye speech bubble, “I’m going horizontal jogging.”

As Johnson now separates from his wife, Marina Wheeler, do we want a prime minister who will be negotiating his own divorce settlement at the same time as the UK’s one with the European Union (albeit with a bit less than £39bn at stake)?

Independent Minds Events: get involved in the news agenda

Who, if anyone, will be moving in with Johnson to Downing Street? Who will share his moment of joy on the steps of No 10, when he pledges to unite the country? Will he even live there, or kip in the back of his Toyota? How will he conduct himself? Will he try to slip his security detail, clamber on to his bike, escape the stultifying atmosphere of the official bubble, and strike out for fresh adventures? These are perfectly fair questions.

Without being indelicate or especially intrusive – Johnson’s private life is public knowledge, Johnson proves the old adage attributed to Sir James Goldsmith: “When a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy.” He is hardly the first politician to have an unconventional private life. Still, the occupants of No 10 have led lives of stolid, reassuring domesticity since that notorious lothario Lloyd George left in 1922.

His predecessor, HH Asquith, in his sixties, used to write letters to his mistress, Venetia Stanley, in her twenties, during cabinet meetings. Their love lives stayed secret. But that was in an age of deference and before Mail Online had been invented. I just hope, for the sake of all concerned, and for the United Kingdom, that Johnson keeps his willy (or Johnson as they call it in America) locked up.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments