I have just flown back from London, a city where history seems to seep through every brick. Over the last five centuries, this has been the city that has defined the destiny of the world. Plaques on houses remind us as to who lived when and where. During this trip, I saw plaques on houses where the painter John Constable and the writer George Orwell once made their homes. Whilst on the way to a dinner with friends, I also saw Hugh Gaitskell’s tomb but more about this Labour Party leader later.
The most striking bit of gossip that I picked up was that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has knocked up his nanny and is expecting what might be his twelfth child. As rumors go, this might be as fictional as Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. After all, rumors have swirled in London and various capitals around the world for ages about the salacious private lives of the great men of the realm.
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Yet I could not help but think that rumors about Johnson are taking this green and pleasant land back to the future. The current prime minister is supremely powerful. All Tory grandees have been defenestrated. The likes of William Hague and Kenneth Clarke may still go around giving speeches but they do not matter anymore. Unlike Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher who surrounded herself with big beasts in the cabinet, Johnson is now the only big beast among pygmies. Unlikely though this may sound, such concentration of power harks back to a bygone era.
Falstaffian Churchill-Worshiping Henry VIII
Johnson may play the buffoon but he is a classicist with a keen sense of history. He is one of the great characters of Eton, a great school that produced the likes of the Duke of Wellington and Orwell. As a child, young Johnson wanted to be world king. Later, he downgraded his ambitions and gunned to be prime minister. Not only has Johnson got to 10 Downing Street, he has got there in style and has etched his name in the history books. This Falstaffian figure fond of wine, women and song has delivered Brexit and won a thumping reelection.
In many ways, Big Boris is the modern Henry VIII who has broken with Europe. It may turn out to be a jolly good thing in the future as debt-ridden aging Europe fails to deal with its mounting debts, stubborn unemployment and now rising inflation. In the long run, Brexit might still turn out to be a jolly good thing after all. Johnson might end up like the historic Henry VIII figure who set England on the path of glory and empire.
Johnson, who is obsessed with Winston Churchill, is doing quite well out of the Russia-Ukraine War. Like his hero, the prime minister is enjoying his finest hour. He has boldly taken on the transparently villainous Vladimir Putin and turned the screws on Russian oligarchs who, until not too long ago, bought houses, yachts and football clubs. A few weeks ago, BoJo (a popular nickname for Johnson in the UK) dashed to Kyiv for a walkabout with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Yet not all has been going well for Big Boris since he moved into 10 Downing Street. Brexit was a long drawn-out affair. The Partygate scandal continues to rumble on. Tory grandees and the notoriously savage British press continue to hammer Johnson. The Economist has claimed “foot-dragging, hard-heartedness, ineptitude and dishonesty”to be typical of BoJo’s government. The venerable 1843 publication has gone on to say repeatedly that the Johnson “government is a fundamentally unserious government led by fundamentally unserious people.”
Most recently, BoJo lost what Al Ghaff and I have called “the most consequential local elections in decades.” Yet he remains firmly in the saddle because this “sly fox disguised as a teddy bear” has chewed up the little rabbit coming out of the Tory hat named Rishi Sunak.
Cummings and Goings
The recent rumors about Johnson’s latest amorous adventure might be much ado about nothing. After all, nothing has stopped BoJo in the past. He is the great survivor of British politics. Nearly 18 years ago, Michael Howard sacked BoJo for lying about an affair. BoJo came roaring back and is still riding high.
Yet there is always a sneaking suspicion that one day BoJo might not be able to manage yet another James Bond-style close shave. As the adage goes, even the canniest of cats have only nine lives. It is not without reason that Dominic Cummings, once an unlikely ally of Johnson, called him “a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.” Some of BoJo’s critics point to his private life as proof of Cummings’ observations and Spitting Image has repeatedly taken the mickey out of BoJo for never taking precautions.
Two years ago, when BoJo’s now wife and then girlfriend was expecting their baby, Private Eye mocked Big Boris for fathering what was rumored to be his tenth child. Carrie Johnson has now given birth to another child, bringing that number to 11. BoJo has produced enough progeny to form a football (soccer for Americans) team. Now, rumors emerge that the man advised to “lock up [his] willy” might have failed to do so again. This time, his nanny is the lady in question.
Already, BoJo’s nanny has been in the news. Apparently, Conservative donors have been ponying up the cash to pay for his lifestyle. This allegedly includes the salary of the nanny. Early this month, The Times — the real one in London, not The New York Times that is a target of my learned colleague Peter Isackson — asked, “Can Boris Johnson afford to be prime minister?”
Given BoJo’s posh lifestyle and, presumably, “off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush” payments for his many children, The Times’ question is most pertinent. Another Boris, the blond tennis superstar Boris Becker, once known for his booming serve and partying lifestyle, is in jail over bankruptcy charges. BoJo is unlikely to end up like Becker but he is clearly a prime minister under strain. If rumors of another child with the nanny are not just smoke without fire, then the BoJo shopping trolley might be careening completely out of control.
When is Private Life a Public Issue?
Rumors about BoJo’s child number 12 for the man in Number 10 raise a key issue about the private lives of public figures. In puritanical America, politicians were and, with the exception of Donald Trump, still are generally damned for what many Europeans might term moments of weakness or mere piffle. Gary Hart’s presidential campaign imploded when a lissome model was found on his lap. David Petraeus had to resign as the director of the CIA for an extramarital affair and the ensuing kerfuffle. Such errant behavior is seen to be a reflection of poor character that disqualifies people from public office.
In France, presidents have long had mistresses. It almost seems that it is a prerequisite for the job and perhaps demonstrates nimble management skills required of any inhabitant of the Élysée Palace. BoJo has long maintained that his private life is his private life and that is that. In 2013, a British judge disagreed. He refused BoJo a gagging order concerning an illegitimate child taking the view that the public had a right to know about BoJo’s “reckless” conduct.
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As my dear Dutch friend Jarst de Jong put it best, BoJo’s private life is a matter of public importance. It gives insight into the character and judgment of the British prime minister. A Jarst said pithily, anyone can cheat once because no one is a saint. A second time may be understable as well. But when someone cheats repeatedly and lies about it, then it reveals their lack of trustworthiness. BoJo seems to repeatedly betray those who love and trust him. That might not be the most desirable trait for any leader.
BoJo’s repeated scandals also reveal a certain lack of awareness and understanding of risk. Taking risks is part of leadership but taking risks without understanding what consequences they entail is a dangerous habit. BoJo has long had a reputation for recklessness but has got away with the risks he has taken so far. Maybe, the twelfth child might inspire a play like The Twelfth Night.
Perhaps the UK could heed the words of Max Hastings, a man who first hired Johnson and packed him off to Brussels. Hastings also gave BoJo the “lock up” advice, which has so far gone unheeded. In 2018, Hastings wrote, “Johnson’s glittering intelligence [was] not matched by self-knowledge.” Calling BoJo, “Blackadder in a blond wig” with “remarkable gifts,” Hastings called Big Boris “flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple.” The contrast with Gaitskell whose tombstone says fortitudo et integritas could not be starker.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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