What does the row over Boris Johnson's neighbours say about him and his campaign?

Johnson's response is a revealing early test of how he will react to difficult moments in the heat of an election or a political crisis


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For those of you coming back after a weekend away: police were called to the flat Johnson shares with his partner, Carrie Symonds, after neighbours heard shouting and screaming and shouts of “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. Their neighbours have been vox-popped and a recording made by one of them has been passed to the Guardian

Neighbours hearing shouting and yelling in the flat upstairs (or downstairs, or next door) and calling the police for fear something is going on is, or at least ought to be, part and parcel of living in a flats. All too often, of course, what people do is listen to the noise, worry about it but leave it to someone else to intervene or call the authorities. What we then hope happens in that situation is that the police investigate and find that there was nothing more going on that some shouting at an inconsiderate time of night – which is what appears to have happened in this case. It's of media interest only because this incident involves the frontrunner in an otherwise dull leadership contest. 

What is more noteworthy is the response of his campaign and his media allies. Johnson's neighbours were monstered in the press, with the right-wing press leading heavily on the fact that the neighbour who made the recording voted to Remain, while the private lives of Johnson's Camberwell neighbours have been detailed in the Sunday papers. It means another day of the row and What It All Reveals About Johnson being the topic of discussion, as opposed to literally any other topic, almost all of which are more congenial to the frontrunner.

It makes Jeremy Hunt's dogged campaign for Johnson to agree to more televised debates look less like the underdog desperately looking for moments to change the dynamic of the race and more like a sensible call for Johnson to get a full MOT from the Tory party membership before the contest is over. 

That the incident is into Round 3231 of the United Kingdom's interminable culture war is good for newspaper circulation – but it isn't good for the Conservative party. The not-so-subtle message of “They're Remainers, What Can You Expect?” is helpful for Johnson's campaign to become Conservative leader. But the drip-drip-drip of articles to the effect that it is unnatural for Remainers to vote Tory will have a political afterlife that Johnson and his successors will continue to regret long after he has moved into Downing Street.

This is a row that could have been dealt with thanks to a quick statement – rather than by Johnson's outriders going for his neighbours. It's a revealing early stress test for how the Johnson machine will react to difficult moments in the heat of an election or a political crisis – both of which are highly likely to come by the autumn.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.