Does the Johnson ‘Close Friend’ Story Really Matter?

The Prime Minister stands accused of helping a “friend” access public money while he was Mayor of London. The implications regarding corruption and probity are significant and his unwillingness so far to answer questions raises further questions.

But in our regular series on such things we ask “does it matter?”

The Background

While Mayor of London, Boris Johnson used to regularly visit the home of a younger woman.

That might make this a sex scandal. But this is, we must keep in mind, about a man with at least one illicit child he was forced though the courts over, a broken marriage, and many other rumours of involvements with younger women behind the back of one partner or another.

And he was still made Prime Minister.

What Has Changed?

What has really changed is that this is now about money not sex. Indeed, it isn’t actually confirmed that sex was involved.

Reports suggest the woman in question was able to take part in foreign business trips and was even awarded taxpayer cash for her business. In both cases it seems that normal processes were at best not adhered to or worse deliberately over-ridden with intervention by Boris Johnson.

There was once an old aspect to politics that Labour could survive a sex scandal but not a financial one, and the Conservatives could survive a financial scandal but not a sex scandal. That was a perception that played on the Conservatives as being of traditional christian moral values, and Labour being liberal but driven by public sector morality.

The addage broke down a long time ago but to have such a senior figure as the Prime Minister accused of out and out corruption is still definitely unusual.

So it Matters Then?

There are some very practical issues to follow from this story. In theory, if evidence proves strong, there is even the prospect of legal action having to be taken over the misuse of public funds by a public employee. More likely, but perhaps no less embarrasingly for the Prime Minister, there is the prospect of being hauled through questions by either or both of the Greater London Authority and/or Parliament.

There are codes that politicians are required to adhere to and in theory these can decide he has brought a position into disrepute. That could happen.

There is also the publicity aspect that an older man visited a younger woman for regular afternoons at her flat behind his wife’s back, and potentially that she benefited financially from this arrangement at taxpayer expense, not his own.

With the UK tabloid press it is hard to imagine a more enjoyable story for editors.

Or Maybe it Doesn’t Matter

The thing thing is, almost nothing about this story is surprising.

To find out that Boris Johnson enjoys time with younger women, or potentially had an affair, is news to almost no one. Likewise, to discover that Boris Johnson is lacksidasical in his approach to rules and systems is simply not a discovery.

With a firmly polarised outlook about politics right now, especially with the press heavilly aligned to one side or another, all of this means the story lacks a real “shock” factor.

Without that shock factor it is likely that those angry will be those who already have firm views on such things, and thus on Boris Johnson. It is also likely that those who think he is the right man to be Prime Minister will have already long since forgiven him for being a bit like this.

So all in all it is hard to see who might be surprised enough about such a story to genuinely change opinion of the Prime Minister on the basis of it.

Wider Implications 

There is, despite all of that, one small group that this might be problematic with. While politicians are remarkably pragmatic about overlooking concerns about leaders who win, they are much less so when the leader looks like losing.  

The status of a leader as a “winner” rather than “loser” is always under permanent review. Even Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – after years and years of winning – were turned on when they looked like losing.

Conservatives chose Johnson as leader partly because they perceived him to be a winner. The last few weeks have seen a lot of losing, however. Downing Street’s reponse to the rebel alliance, the forced publication of Yellowhammer findings, and the growing likelihood he won’t get brexit done on time, create an uneasy feeling for his MPs.

Losing six times in Parliament, indications already of a narrowing in the polls, and the issues in court about prorogation all add up to a risk that the party leader might be a loser not a winner.

If this story adds to that unease it might become important. Until then it is probably just tabloidy fun that doesn’t matter.

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