British politics has seen some thrilling scandals. We’ve read about sex, Soviets, envelopes stuffed with cash, and even a conspiracy to murder. Plenty of Britain’s named-and-shamed politicians would be fit for cameo in Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’. The majority are immediately forced out of office and left to fight for public redemption.
Boris Johnson however, continues to be the frontrunner to become Britain’s next prime minister despite countless scandals of sexual, racist and political nature. He can’t be brought down by any controversy because he has cast himself as the Shakespearean fool in an ongoing political tragedy. A fool cannot be held to any moral standard.
Johnson’s scandals are more than the typical ‘sleaze’ stories that have single-handedly brought down politicians’ careers – or governments in the case of John Profumo. The potential prime minister has been consistently adulterous to multiple wives – leaving behind a reputation as an ‘afternoon lover’ within Tory circles. He is maybe the only politician in Westminster that refuses to answer how many children he has.
His well-known struggle with monogamy has led to an abortion, an attempted injunction and even a love-child. But rather than being cast away as a Tory sleaze, Johnson has managed to build his popularity to celebrity status. He has somehow avoided the fate of fellow Tory Cecil Parkinson who was forced to resign as trade minister in 1983 after news his mistress was pregnant. Margaret Thatcher even dropped him from the contest to become the foreign secretary. How is it possible that Boris has been able to strengthen his career on the back of infidelity?
It may be a sign of the times. The 1970s was an exciting time to talk about sex and its accessories. The introduction of the contraceptive pill, the mini-skirt and Top of the Pops meant that for the first time the public were starting to gossip about sex without shame. Cecil Parkinson was one of the first case studies of modern Britain behind closed doors.
Boris Johnson however – lives in the era of TMZ, Twitter and the Sun Online. The public have heard every story possible about corrupt politicians and their dodgy sex lives. University of Exeter Professor Richard Toye supposes we are suffering a ‘scandal fatigue’. We take less interest in such scandals because we are always hearing of them. It makes sense. I suppose once you’ve heard David Cameron put his ‘private part’ in a dead pig’s mouth, you’re prepared for anything.
Primarily though, Boris Johnson has escaped scot-free because we have no standard to keep him accountable to. He has not set himself a moral bar or standard that many of his colleagues have past and present. In fact, his appeal is often that he has no bar at all. As the resident fool of British politics, we tend to call his behaviours ‘gaffes’ rather than scandals.
It’s a clever tactic that has served him well. That famous image of Johnson suspended from a zipwire stupidly clutching two Union Jack flags in either hand somehow managed to boost his popularity. David Cameron at the time commented, ‘if any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it’s an absolute triumph’. This isn’t to say he actually asked the organisers at Victoria Park to sabotage his fun on the zip-wire. But the subsequent inane poses for the camera showed a man that could not possibly rage at his girlfriend, or maliciously call gay men ‘bum boys’, black people ‘piccaninnies’ or Muslim women ‘letterboxes’.
The same is applicable to the president of the United States. The moral bar was set extremely low from the start. It soon became Donald Trump’s popular brand to play around with ‘locker-room talk’. Once American voters condoned ‘grab her by the pussy’, it was only authentic for him to continue with the same moral ineptitude. Trump could be re-elected on the basis of this character he has created, in spite of ongoing investigations into Russian collusion.
This isn’t to say Boris Johnson could freely coerce with foreign agents as prime minister. He would be comprehensively investigated by our political and legal institutions. But would the electorate be as concerned? Unlikely. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are the winners of a new political transaction – voters now forgive immorality in exchange for personality.
Boris Johnson could be invincible as prime minister. Johnson’s stage act could, and has, protected him from most scandals. He has been through accusations of infidelity, racism, homophobia and political ineptitude – yet still, it looks like he will govern our country come July 23rd. He has built a foolish character reminiscent of his beloved Shakespeare, and simultaneously made himself infallible.
Perhaps it is Viola of Twelfth Night that has had a particular influence on Johnson’s political career. As the curtains open for Act 3, she remarks - ‘this fellow is wise enough to play the fool’.