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31 March 2021

How will Boris Johnson get away with the claims made by Jennifer Arcuri? Because we will let him

The way that the Prime Minister can brush off scandals other politicians couldn’t has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

By Martha Gill

So there are to be no consequences for Boris Johnson over his alleged affair with Jennifer Arcuri and her receipt of £126,000 of public money.  

You and I both know this already. The revelations that Arcuri disclosed to the Sunday Mirror – that she and Johnson had had a four-year affair – have already faded from the news cycle. Even as the story broke it was greeted with a certain weary cynicism. “Are we supposed to be shocked?” we asked. “Didn’t we know all this already?”  

True, there is an investigation over the funds Arcuri later received, and the Greater London Authority is looking into whether the businesswoman was given preferential treatment as a result of her “friendship” with the then London mayor. But whatever the outcome, you can bet the public will not much care. Johnson will not be brought down by this.  

Why? Because the Prime Minister’s misbehaviour is priced in. Whatever he does, we have a feeling that he has already, to some extent, admitted to it. Bad behaviour fits with the character he presents: the rogue. Hypocrisy – for us Brits the very worst sin of them all – is therefore absent.  

I’ve written about this before: Johnson’s magic trick is to show us he is merely performing the role of politician, to let us in on the act, to wink at us as he stumbles through his lines (“these are just the sorts of things I am expected to say, I do not really mean them”) so that when he is actually shown to have been lying we feel naive for not having known it already. “But of course. What did you expect?” becomes the worldly response.

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It is, of course, also the wrong one. For any other prime minister, a discovery that they had handed public money to a lover would mean resignation. For Johnson – if that is what he is found to have done –it almost certainly won’t. “Look at us, letting him off the hook”, we will say, letting him off the hook. “How does he do it?” We have made our Prime Minister unaccountable. 

The other way this type of scandal is brushed aside is with the retort that, as long as he is not found to have misappropriated funds, Johnson’s behaviour in his personal life has nothing to do with his capacity to do his job. That, essentially, is what his press secretary Allegra Stratton said when she defended the Prime Minister as someone who “acts with integrity and is honest”. Sure, he may have cheated on his wife again and again, the argument goes, but that part of his character is strictly quarantined and self-isolated from the part that he uses for work. It’s all very French. 

There are two holes in this defence. First, prime ministers’ personal lives are generally part of the job application. Spouses and other halves are trotted out on campaign trails and at big speeches, and their behaviour and good works rebound to the politician’s credit (or detriment). A prospective prime minister sells their whole self to the electorate. They cannot then claim part of it back. 

Second, and more importantly, character can rarely be divided so neatly. If you’re prepared to lie and betray those you supposedly love, it often turns out that you’re also prepared to betray those you’re merely supposed to collect your pay cheque from. When a journalist hears rumours of a politician having an affair, they know to start looking for a bigger scandal. In 2004, when David Blunkett’s affair with Kimberly Quinn was discovered, it was soon followed by allegations he had fast-tracked the visa application of her nanny. Similarly, in 1992, when David Mellor’s affair with the actor Antonia de Sancha came to light, it was found he had also enjoyed a free holiday courtesy of the daughter of a Palestine Liberation Organization official.

So it is with Boris Johnson. As he lies to the women in his life, he lies also to his employers. He was sacked from the Times in 1988 for making up quotes, and subsequently presented Eurosceptic myths as stories when he was Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph. He was sacked too as vice-chairman and shadow arts minister of the Tory party in 2004 for (and tell me if this sounds familiar) lying about an affair. Whether or not Johnson is found in this instance to have given Arcuri public money as a result of their connection, it cannot be claimed that his conduct in private does not bleed into his behaviour in public.  

That Johnson gets away with things other politicians wouldn’t has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Journalists won’t call for his resignation because it would not happen. Instead they ask, as I did at the start of this piece, “How will he get away with it this time?” And the article becomes a list of flattering ideas about this man’s unique political skills. 

We should perhaps try harder to judge him by the usual standards. Johnson may seem unique to us, but there are plenty of others who stand a few rungs beneath him on the ladder, believing they have the skills to play the same game, and that they can bend the rules too. The way we treat Boris Johnson matters for his term in office, but it is also setting an example that could shape government attitudes long after he is gone. Character does matter in politics. We should all start acting like it. 

[See also: The Tories’ flag-flying is the shallowest form of patriotism]