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18 November 2019

How the ongoing Jennifer Arcuri scandal exposes a difficult paradox for Boris Johnson

If the Prime Minister pulls off a large election victory, Conservative MPs may soon regard him as disposable. 

By Stephen Bush

Did the Conservatives offer peerages and government jobs in order to encourage Brexit Party candidates not to stand? Those are the accusations that Nigel Farage and other Brexit Party bigwigs are throwing at Boris Johnson.

If you’re the police, then these are, of course, serious allegations that need to be investigated in full and with an open mind. But frankly, if you’re anyone else and are wondering how much headroom to give to the accusations: I’d draw your attention to the past accusations about postal votes that were typically thrown at the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives by Ukip, aka the Brexit Party 1.0, after it lost in by-elections and general elections. Or, indeed, to the accusations made by the Brexit Party itself, after its loss against Labour in this year’s Peterborough by-election.

Time after time, accusations by Farage’s parties tend to be sound and fury, signifying nothing. I think most voters, whether they recall those rows or not, will similarly tune out the Brexit Party’s claims.

What about the rolling story of Johnson’s relationship with Jennifer Arcuri? Arcuri has given two ITV interviews in the last 24 hours, saying that she is “terribly heartbroken” that Johnson has treated her like “some fleeting one-night stand” or someone he “picked up at a bar” by shutting her out once the stories about their relationship – which Arcuri still denies was sexual in nature – came to light.

But of course, the Arcuri scandal isn’t about sex, but money. Whether you think Boris Johnson was receiving IT lessons in Arcuri’s flat, the question that matters is: would her businesses have received taxpayer money were it not for her personal connection to him?

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Frankly, I doubt that anyone who plans to vote for Johnson in this election – or anyone who plans to vote against him for that matter – is going to have their view of the Prime Minister upended if it turns out that the answer to that question is “no”. 

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It exposes a curious paradox for Johnson at this election: Conservative MPs wouldn’t have fallen over in shock if you’d told them that there had been impropriety on the part of Johnson in his past. They voted for him not because they decided that their doubts about his character and his abilities as an administrator were mistaken, but because they thought he represented their best chance of seeing off Labour. If something happens over the next four weeks to disrupt his path back to Downing Street, or he ends up there without a majority, expect those doubts to once again flash to surface.

But some senior Conservatives think that if Johnson wins big – big enough to mean that Labour is out not just for five years but for ten – then you can also expect Tory MPs to say to one another: look, he’s done his job – it’s safe to hand it to someone younger and cleaner. While merely repeating Theresa May’s June 2017 result isn’t going to be good enough, getting the result that May thought she might get in April 2017 might not be the best outcome for him personally either.