Boris Johnson has managed to shrug off stories of affairs and questions about how many children he has fathered down the years because he sensed that the public mood has changed, writes Donal Lynch
In 2005, many years before there was any prospect of him becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson published a novel called 72 Virgins.
Its hero is an oddly familiar bumbling and gaffe-prone MP who spends much of the book charmingly cycling his bike, issuing quotable bon mots and being unjustly hounded by the press for his sexual indiscretions. They don’t get that he is “an alpha male, so alpha he’d have been awarded a congratulatory first by the examiners in Advanced Virility... He simply had the right stuff exploding from every orifice. In fact, his machismo was so intense he was sometimes considered a danger to himself”.
One of the female characters is described thus: “She was looking — this may sound crude, but it is no less than the truth — like a lingerie model only cleverer, and, if anything, with bigger breasts.” The sex between the stars of the book is described as “when he does that wonderful thing to her again”.
When Johnson went on BBC radio’s Desert Island Discs to promote the book, Sue Lawley, the show’s presenter, called it “chillingly prescient”. She then asked Johnson why he had written a book that reminded everyone of all the affairs he’d had. “You do like playing with fire, don’t you?” she added.
“I suppose there might be an element of truth in that,” BoJo replied.
Fast-forward 15 years and there seemed to be an element of understatement in Lawley’s observation: in both his personal and political life Johnson appears like a sort of professional fire-juggler. In short order he has seized the reins of a chaotic Brexit, been gravely ill from Covid-19 mere weeks after declaring that Britain would pursue the notorious ‘herd immunity’ strategy, and become a father again at a moment when scrutiny over the exact number of children he has fathered is at an all-time high.
The barrage of life events would have left lesser mortals shaken and exhausted, but Boris seems to thrive on upheaval. “Very excited, very excited,” was how he described himself after the arrival of Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson, named after the doctor who had saved Boris’s life, on April 29.
In another era a baby in Number 10 (although Boris and Carrie Symonds have actually moved in to Number 11) would be a unifying moment for the nation. When Cherie Blair and then Samantha Cameron gave birth while in residence at Downing Street, the tiny arrivals softened a statesman’s image and bolstered his popularity with women.
But, perhaps rightly, people look at Boris through a different lens. For him, perhaps uniquely in recent British political history, fatherhood comes with an overtone of controversy. Last week the subtext of the questions the Prime Minister received was ‘just what kind of a father are you going to be’?
On This Morning, Holly Willoughby asked him if he would be changing baby Wilfred’s nappies. The usually verbose Johnson appeared to try to dodge the question, eventually saying: “I expect so, I expect so.” When asked by Phillip Schofield if his family were happy for him and his 31-year-old partner, BoJo refused to answer, prompting more choruses of tutting on social media. And, in fact, the interview was fairly softball. A more pertinent question might have been one he has never seemed to be able to answer: how many children is that now?
While Boris has been resolutely silent on that subject, journalists, biographers and dramatists have speculated. In the same summer that 72 Virgins came out, one of the most talked-about plays in London was Toby Young’s Who’s The Daddy?. The plot centred around the offices of The Spectator, where Johnson was editor and everyone was bonking everyone else.
The Boris character — handily named ‘Boris’ — had a life-size portrait of Margaret Thatcher on his office wall that doubled as a pull-down bed and was in fairly constant use. The play ended with the publisher of the magazine giving birth to triplets, all of them sporting a shock of blonde hair. Young later said that he wouldn’t allow the play to move to the West End because he wanted to “spare Boris’s blushes”. And he counted himself as a close friend of Johnson.
But embarrassment never seemed much of a deterrent for Boris. That would be far too serious and literal an emotion for a man who has always considered it the ultimate sin to be taking things too seriously. There have always enough pursed-lipped critics to point out his moral failings — and he has committed a litany of sins — but Boris has somehow incorporated his indiscretions into his personal brand. “When you make one mistake it might be fatal,” Quentin Crisp once wrote. “But when you make enough of them, mistakes simply become your style.”
And perhaps it could never have been any other way. Boris, it was said, learned about adultery at his father’s knee. Stanley Johnson once wrote that his own father had felt he was marrying too young and that he and his wife-to-be, Charlotte, would be “like lambs to the slaughter”. As it turned out only one of them was to be sacrificed, however.
In Sonia Purnell’s biography, Just Boris, she quotes a family friend who says that Boris’s mother “had lived every day for years knowing that every woman who came into close contact with Stanley was fair game. It even included the wives of friends”. In 1974 Charlotte Johnson Wahl had a mental breakdown and a few years later she was divorced from Stanley, who went on to have two more children by his subsequent wife, Jennifer.
The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Like his parents, Boris married young, in 1987. He met Allegra Mostyn-Owen while he was studying Classics at Balliol College, Oxford. She was the daughter of art historian and Christie’s auction house chairman William Mostyn-Owen and his Italian writer wife Gaia Servadio.
The family seat was a stately home in Shropshire which was also the wedding venue for Boris and Allegra. On the day of their wedding she wore flowers through her hair and Johnson arrived with neither trousers nor shoes. Tatler described it as “a cross between La Dolce Vita and Brideshead Revisited”.
But their marital bliss, such as it ever was, was short-lived. Just as he would years later with Carrie, Johnson was reported to have had a blazing row with Allegra. It’s not clear if this was the reason for their eventual break-up but he began his next relationship — with lawyer Marina Wheeler — while still married. In 1993 Allegra agreed to divorce her husband. She and Johnson remained good friends. “He’s a better ex than he was a husband,” she told the London Evening Standard in 2012. For all his alleged caddishness, Boris has remained on good terms with his exes.
Boris and Marina had known each other since childhood and met again when both were pupils at the European School in Brussels. They were married in 1993, a few weeks after his divorce from Allegra was finalised.
Marina would eventually bear four of Johnson’s children, but their marriage was marred early on by his affair with Petronella Wyatt. ‘Petsy’ is the daughter of the late Labour grandee Lord Wyatt, and was one of Boris’s columnists when he was editor at The Spectator.
Petsy later said that Boris had an elastic relationship with the truth but was basically harmless, and in some senses much the same could have been said about her: when she was a columnist, her mother once phoned to say that she couldn’t make it in to the office as it was “too windy”. Petsy later said Boris had told her that it was “unreasonable” that a man be confined to one woman.
The affair petered out, yet Petsy would come back to haunt him as he moved into his political career. Against the odds — he had only been nominated, a party source said, “to liven things up at the hustings” — he became the Conservative MP for Henley in 2001 and by 2004 had progressed to the party’s front bench.
It was then that The Mail On Sunday broke the story that Petsy had become pregnant by Boris and had chosen to have an abortion in a private hospital. Johnson was already reeling from the fallout of an editorial, which ran in The Spectator, accusing the people of Liverpool of indulging in “victim status” in the aftermath of the murder in Iraq of Kenneth Bigley, and the scandal of the affair was the final straw for then party leader Michael Howard. He fired Boris for lying about the affair — Johnson had called the story “an inverted pyramid of piffle”.
Boris, however, was aided by fierce local loyalty. His local paper in Henley refused to cover Petsy-gate and the constituency chairman, Richard Pullen, later said that “the ladies of Henley didn’t criticise him for his affairs. In fact, most of them would always say that it was Marina’s fault.”
Johnson’s career reached a new peak when he was elected Mayor of London in 2008, but with redemption came yet more infidelity. Toby Young once described Boris as being “a cross between Hugh Grant and a silverback gorilla”.
Early in his stint as mayor he began an affair with art adviser Helen MacIntyre. She was (and is) a major player in the Middle Eastern art market and has brokered deals worth millions of euro for the region’s ruling dynasties. Tatler described her as “expensive but accessible, feminine but up for anything, bright but a bit blowsy — the type of woman you could get drunk with while discussing philosophy” — just up Boris’s alley.
In 2009 she gave birth to Boris’s lovechild Stephanie, who shares his wild mop of blonde hair. MacIntyre moved out of the London home of her then-partner, property developer Pierre Rolin, after Stephanie was born. Neither she nor Johnson has ever confirmed — or denied — that he was the father. Stephanie’s father was not identified on her birth certificate.
In a case brought by Associated Newspapers, the High Court later agreed the story could be reported upon. Lord Justice Dyson said: “It is not in dispute that the legitimate public interest in the father’s character is an important factor to be weighed in the balance against the child’s expectation of privacy.
“The core information, namely that the father had an adulterous affair with the mother, deceiving both his wife and the mother’s partner, and that the child, born about nine months later, was likely to be the father’s child, was a public interest matter which the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office.”
He added: “It is fanciful to expect the public to forget the fact that a man who is said to be the baby’s father, and who is a major public figure, has fathered a child after a brief adulterous affair (not for the first time).”
When he became prime minister last year the scrutiny about the true size of his brood increased.
New baby Wilfred brings Boris’s paternity total (that we know of) to six, after Stephanie (11) and his four children with Marina: Lara Lettice (27), Milo Arthur (25), Cassia Peaches (23), and Theodore Apollo (21). Marina and Boris finally announced their divorce in 2018.
And by then Boris and Carrie were already an item, although it only became official the following year when she supported him in the leadership bid. She is suitably posh: her parents are Matthew Symonds, one of the founders of The Independent, and Josephine Mcaffee, who was one of the paper’s lawyers.
Carrie works for the ‘Save The Oceans, Feed The World initiative’, while Boris’s contribution to reducing plastic use is said to be avoiding using condoms. Last year police were called to their home after neighbours heard a loud altercation. A neighbour told The Guardian they heard a woman screaming followed by “slamming and banging”. Symonds was heard telling Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”.
But, like all of his controversies, this minor storm seemed to blow over for Boris. His refusal to confirm how many children he has fathered is constantly seized upon by the media and his opponents, but Boris, like Donald Trump, manages the dizzying feat of being a deeply conservative politician who has emerged unscathed from a morally questionable back-story.
In part this is because, unlike a generation of conservative philanderers before him, Boris never seemed particularly hypocritical: he is the most socially liberal prime minister ever and has refused to join in the pile-on of others who were embroiled in their own scandals — he defended Bill Clinton’s shenanigans in the 1990s, blaming Monica Lewinsky for the affair and excoriating the press for its prurience.
As his career climbed to greater heights, he sensed, just as he did with Brexit, that the public mood has shifted. Sex is now silly rather than scandalous, and silly is Boris’s metier, his magic talisman against outrage.
He could get caught with his trousers down and somehow be in on the joke. His talents and failings are interwoven: the chaos of his personal life has steeled him for the broader chaos of Brexit and coronavirus, and the real question, as he goes on, will not be whom he sleeps with, but whether he screws the country.
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Major was so boring his Spitting Image puppet was all grey, but former MP Currie, with whom he had an affair, later assured us that his underpants, at least, were blue and he was a sexy beast behind closed doors. “Was I sex-obsessed?” she once asked. “Well I certainly wasn’t cupcake-obsessed, let’s put it that way.”
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky
Bill’s lies under oath made for riveting television and a constitutional crisis in America. Monica Lewinsky was at the time a 19-year-old intern at the White House and there was a note of exploitation in the way she was dealt with by both Clinton’s prosecutor, Ken Starr, and the former president himself.
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The former president of France could give Boris a run for his money as far as notches on the bedpost go. Actress Julie Gayet is the latest chapter in the story of his complicated love life, which also included journalist Valerie Trierweiler and politician Segolene Royal.