Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Will Brexit trump Tories' innate sense of decency and hand boorish Boris keys to 10 Downing Street?

Unsavoury, but as yet unexplained, nocturnal incident could spell end of Johnson's challenge, says Alban Maginness

Richard Ratcliffe protests at Iranian Embassy. Today marks his 12th day on hunger strike
Richard Ratcliffe protests at Iranian Embassy. Today marks his 12th day on hunger strike
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

So great a win had Boris Johnson among his fellow MPs in his bid to become a candidate for the Tory leadership that one commentator declared the contest was one for Boris to lose, rather than for him to win. At that juncture, nobody could have predicted the curious twist in the fascinating wheel of fortune in the early hours of last Friday morning.

Given the shamefully demeaning and unsavoury row, involving "shouting and screaming" and "slamming and banging", on Friday morning between Boris and his current live-in girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, in her London flat, will his bid for Tory party leader and successor to Theresa May as Prime Minister still succeed?

 

That is the pertinent question being persistently asked by his political opponents, both within and without the Conservative Party.

Although this domestic fracas has been minimised by his handlers and supporters, the colourful and detailed reports of this heated incident ended up on all the front pages and television stations. The huge embarrassment of the police being called to investigate was highly damaging, even though they were satisfied that nothing of a criminal nature had taken place and that all were safe and well.

But whether this was just a one-off, noisy row that has been exaggerated by media reports is neither here nor there, because it is the overall impression that has been created of a man out of control and leading an unstable and undisciplined lifestyle.

This contrasts enormously with the respectable and boringly normal lifestyle of his opponent, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Hunt may be dull and grey to people generally, but he is reassuring to the ordinary voter and, presumably, ordinary Tory party members, who would naturally expect the next Prime Minister to be at least a respectable, upright citizen, leading a civilized and ordered domestic life. Hunt's appeal is in being the classical safe pair of hands.

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Opinion polls taken in the immediate aftermath of this nocturnal incident indicate a sharp decline in support for Boris Johnson within the Conservative Party itself, even though he still maintains a lead over Hunt. Ordinary voters at large now favour Hunt.

Further questions arise as to Johnson's suitability as a potential Prime Minister, given this brief, but unedifying, glimpse into his private life. Questions might also be asked about his personal ability to conduct affairs of state under pressure, given the apparent intensity of the reported row. Also, questions could properly be asked about his failure to honestly and openly explain what happened between him and his girlfriend after the whole incident became tabloid headlines.

Why has he avoided questioning about the incident? What does this course of action tell us about his courage and honesty to face up to the consequences of his unpleasant and disgraceful conduct?

It was a grave mistake not to be candid and contrite over this incident. This tactical error will surely dog the rest of his leadership campaign and undermine confidence in his candidacy.

It is recognised that Johnson was a successful Mayor of London over eight years but, equally, it is agreed he was a poor Foreign Secretary. His dealings with the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe affair were widely regarded as being incompetent and that he seriously reduced her chances of getting early release from an Iranian prison.

It is, therefore, unfortunate timing that her heroic husband, Richard, is staging a hunger strike on her behalf at the Iranian Embassy to pressurise the Iranians into releasing her. At the time, he was in particular critical of the way Johnson had handled her case.

His continuing hunger strike is a reminder of Johnson's previous botched handling of her case and should do further damage to his campaign to be elected leader.

Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade and a Jeremy Hunt supporter, has asked Boris to give an explanation of his behaviour. Others have done the same.

But Boris refuses to engage, even at an official Conservative Party election hustings, and is still trying to ride out the unquenchable Press furore. Silence is simply not good enough and he has nowhere to skulk.

His supporters dubiously claim that his behaviour is essentially a private matter. But it clearly has a public element and is a matter of acute public concern.

After all, here is a man claiming the highest political office in the land, yet while he behaves like a feral juvenile, he refuses to account for his aberrant behaviour.

The real question is, will the potent ideology of Brexit, as articulated by Boris Johnson, trump the instinctive decency of Tory members, who are naturally repulsed by Boris's misbehaviour?

Will Brexit overrule the Conservative sense of common decency and see Boris elected as our next prime minister?

Or will this unsavoury incident be his nemesis?

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