On Saturday 29 February, Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds announced that they are expecting a baby in the summer. This follows the couple’s engagement at the end of last year.
In the swirling cesspool that is British politics, this kind of headline should be welcomed with tidings of great joy. In a week of more destructive flooding across parts of the UK, Muslim-targeted violence in India and a surge in coronavirus cases, this kind of news should be a heart-warming change from the usual depressing sewer that is current affairs.
However, it is difficult to overlook the sexist double standard that overshadows this kind of announcement. If a woman who had never officially disclosed how many children she has had with multiple men announced that she was pregnant again with her unmarried partner while serving in Downing Street, she could never be prime minister.
To date, Boris Johnson has been embroiled in a number of personal scandals that have worked their way into the headlines and given him notoriety. Last June he was involved in a domestic altercation with Carrie Symonds in which the police had to be called. He has also failed to disclose how many children he has fathered.
Johnson has also been involved in multiple affairs with a string of high-profile women punctuating his multiple marriages. When his affair with Petronella Wyatt, which had resulted in an abortion, became known to the public, Johnson was forced to resign as party vice chair and shadow arts minister. The then Conservative leader Michael Howard pushed for Johnson’s resignation from the Tory front bench after having decided that Johnson had been dishonest.
At best Boris Johnson's personal life is colourful, feeding into his persona of being a big, bumbling character, someone who has lived a full life – a man of the people. At worst he is a philanderer, an estranged father to some of his children and a violent serial adulterer to his former spouses. Merely ten years ago, these public disgraces would have ended his political career and turned public opinion against him.
On a more political level, Boris Johnson’s deliberate misleading of voters and blatant dishonesty during the EU referendum campaign has also brought him under possible private prosecution. Some of these particular lies include Turkey joining the EU, details over EU fishing regulations and the infamous £350 million a week to the NHS. He was also caught lying about the impact of fracking after making false environmental claims. He was sacked from The Times in 1988 for inventing a quote from an academic, who happened to be his own godfather.
The frequency of Johnson’s discrepancies, both personal and political, is a startling insight into just how prepared we are to forgive men, not only in the public eye but at the very highest levels of our government.
The consistent behaviour that Johnson has demonstrated shows not only a questionable moral compass but also a failure to hold him accountable for his actions. Perhaps this is a sign of the times and the British are no longer as concerned with politicians’ marital and sexual statuses as they were in the past. However, if any female figure in politics had done half the controversial things Johnson has, they would be slaughtered by the press, their party and the public.
Women in politics evidently still have far to go if they want to reach the same level of immunity privileged to men, particularly ones who went to Eton. If the personal is political, then the election of Boris Johnson to Downing Street means that men will always get away with things that women won’t.
While the 2019 election saw 220 women elected to the House of Commons, the most in history, two thirds of seats are still represented by men. Following Theresa May’s term in office, the second of only two British female Prime Ministers, the election of Boris Johnson seems like a setback in smashing the glass ceiling and encouraging women to get involved in the workings of Westminster.
While Johnson’s attitudes are not perhaps as Victorian as his Tory counterpart Jacob Rees-Mogg, his blokeish behaviour and ‘Bullingdon Club’ background do not particularly evoke images of female inclusion and progression in politics.
His track record on sexism proves that Johnson is no ally to women. The comments he has made over the years gives us a glimpse of his obsolete opinions that have come straight out of the dark age. On the campaign trail in 2005, Johnson told potential voters that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”.
In a piece for The Spectator, Johnson advised his successor, when referring to publisher Kimberly Quinn, to ‘pat her on the bottom and send her on her way’. Another column from 1995 has Johnson describing the children of single mothers as ‘ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate’.
This highly limited lens through which the prime minister views women has also been echoed by his first mother-in-law, Gaia Servadio. According to the mother of his first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, her daughter did not live up to Johnson’s expectations of marriage: ‘Boris is a man who needed someone very obedient and silent, who would be willing to stay in the background and create a soothing home life, while giving him space to build a glittering career. My daughter wasn’t that kind of person.’
While ex-mothers-in-law are hardly the most accurate testament to one’s character, her allegation of his archaic view of marriage, as well as his string of affairs, gives us a deeper understanding of the extent to which Boris Johnson values women and the role they’re supposed to play in his life. Her accusation, as well as all the other allegations of sexism, means our prime minister is the poster boy for the patriarchy we still clearly live in.
Johnson’s dark history of misogyny, homophobia and racism should have disqualified him from the political sphere years ago. His exemption from accountability is another reminder that this is a man’s world and men in positions of power will continue to be excused from a growing list of wrongdoings whereas women will not.