Prudence Dailey’s Commentary
In Private as in Public, Character Matters
My 89-year-old mother says she never trusted Boris. It wasn’t his policies—she didn’t especially object to those—but his personal life. Married and divorced twice, and known for his affairs and an unspecified number of children born out of wedlock, he also became the first Prime Minister to move his (then) girlfriend into Number Ten.
I, meanwhile, while not enthusiastic about these aspects of Mr Johnson’s character, was more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt at first. His optimistic and bumbling demeanour almost made it possible to believe that his personal transgressions—like much else about him—weren’t really all that serious, and had probably happened almost by accident.
How did we get to this point? A generation ago, it was generally accepted that, in public life, if a man’s wife couldn’t trust him, neither could the electorate. Whilst no doubt people still got up to all sorts of things on the quiet (with human nature being what it is), if you were found out then resignation soon followed: anything else would have conveyed the message to society that such indiscretions were not important.
In the mid-1980s, Cecil Parkinson was forced to resign from Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet after revelations that he had got his secretary pregnant. By 1997, however, when then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook was discovered to be having an affair with his secretary, his response was to announce that he was leaving his obviously devastated wife for her, and to remain in office. When Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned earlier this year following the discovery of his clandestine relationship, it was the fact that he had broken his own COVID lockdown rules that sealed his fate, rather than the liaison itself.
Early in his premiership, John Major had coined the slogan ‘Back to Basics’ as an appeal to values such as ‘neighbourliness, decency and courtesy’. Although the Back to Basics campaign was never claimed to be about sexual morality, it was nevertheless used by Major’s opponents to accuse the government of hypocrisy whenever one of its MPs was found with his trousers down. This was partly political opportunism; but partly also a clever and cynical ploy to undermine traditional Christian notions of personal morality within the culture at large, helping to usher in an era in which politicians dare not be seen to advocate ‘family values’. At the same time, the peccadillos of politicians were increasingly seen as entirely separate from their public lives (despite the fact that, in social attitudes surveys, the majority of Britons still say they believe infidelity to be wrong).
Given this history, the bien pensants who criticise the personal lives of Boris Johnson and for that matter Donald Trump, and suggest that they are therefore unfit for office, are the true hypocrites. We must nevertheless acknowledge that they (and my mother) are onto something.
When Boris Johnston was accused of having had an affair with Spectator journalist Petronella Wyatt during his time as the magazine’s Editor, he famously dismissed the story as ‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’. The report was, however, discovered to be true, and Boris was sacked—not for the affair itself, but for the dishonesty surrounding it—from the Shadow Cabinet. And yet what affair does not involve dishonesty?
Since then, there has been a string of other instances, both personal and political, in which Johnson stands accused of being less then truthful. It has got to the stage that, when he insists that there was no Christmas party in Downing Street last year—or perhaps there was, but he didn’t know about it; or perhaps there were several, but they didn’t break the rules—no-one has any reason to believe him. The product of an increasingly de-Christianised culture, he is apparently unmoored from the faith and teaching that once underpinned our collective mores—and it shows.
A politician is a whole person; the public and the private cannot be rent asunder. Character matters.
Miss Dailey is a member of the General Synod from Oxford Diocese.