What is the British equivalent of being able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it? The question of what Boris Johnson might need to do in order to derail his seemingly ineluctable ascent to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore become the next Prime Minister of the U.K., arose anew this weekend, after it was reported that police had been called to resolve a domestic dispute at Johnson’s current place of abode. The Guardian reported that, in the small hours of Friday morning—only hours after Johnson had easily moved forward to the final phase of the forthcoming leadership election—police arrived at the flat in Camberwell, South London, belonging to Carrie Symonds. Symonds, who works in public relations, is Johnson’s romantic partner, and he moved into her flat after his separation last year from his wife of a quarter century, Marina Wheeler, who is a senior barrister. Police were summoned, the newspaper reported, by a concerned couple who had overheard a voluble altercation, during which a woman could be heard saying “Get off me” and “Get out of my flat.” The neighbors, who had knocked at the door repeatedly to no avail, took the precaution of recording the sounds emanating from the apartment, and also took the liberty of supplying the recording to the Guardian. It reportedly included a loud crashing noise, of Johnson telling Symonds to “get off my fucking laptop,” and of Symonds castigating Johnson for spilling red wine on her sofa, saying, “You just don’t care for anything, because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything.”
No arrests were made, the police apparently persuaded by Symonds and Johnson that the dispute was negligible. But, in the wake of the news, questions inevitably arose about whether the episode shone any light on Johnson’s fitness, or lack of it, to become Prime Minister—not simply because of the incident itself but because of Johnson’s manner of commenting on it, which has been to issue no comment. Appearing at a Tory hustings on Saturday, Johnson declined to address the events directly. “People are entitled to ask about me and my determination, my character, and what I want to do for the country,” Johnson said, insisting that the most important element in his character was his determination to insure that Britain leaves the E.U. by the October 31st deadline, either with or without an exit deal with its European neighbors in place. “When I make a promise in politics about what I’m going to do, I keep that promise and I deliver,” he went on, dismissing the altercation report by saying that people do not “want to hear about that kind of thing.”
Do they? The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who is Johnson’s rival to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister, has indicated that he thinks they should. On Sunday, he suggested that Johnson “needs to show that he’s prepared to answer difficult questions.” Whether Hunt is right, or merely righteous, is still far from clear. But what is certain is that any stumble on the part of Johnson is welcome news to Hunt, who secured fewer than half the votes that Johnson did in last week’s final ballot of Conservative Members of Parliament, the vote that determined which two candidates the hundred and sixty thousand card-carrying members of the Conservative Party will get to choose between.
Judging by the immediate response of the partisan Tory press this weekend, Johnson is correct in his surmise that what goes on in his personal life remains between him, his girlfriend, and possibly his divorce lawyer. Countervailing coverage focussed on the political and moral character of the couple who had called the police, who reportedly are in favor of Britain remaining in the E.U. (Their political leanings are shared by the vast majority of Symond’s Camberwell neighbors: in the Brexit referendum, in 2016, almost three-quarters of voters in the borough of Southwark, of which the neighborhood is a part, were in favor of Remain.) Questions were also asked about their decision to record a domestic dispute and then leak it to a newspaper, and a comparison was made to the behavior of Stasi informants. The Daily Telegraph, which is reliably pro-Johnson—as it might be, given that he is a columnist for the paper, on an annual salary of two hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds—focussed its own investigative energies on the social-media trail left by the neighbors. (The wife’s questionable qualities include being both a theatre producer and an American.) The incident came in for comic treatment by the newspaper’s long-standing cartoonist, Matt Pritchett: his contribution was an image of a police officer speaking to the press, accompanied by the caption, “We were called to Jeremy Hunt’s property after neighbors heard someone excitedly screaming, ‘I’m going to be Prime Minister.’ ”
To imagine—or perhaps to hope—that questions about Johnson’s character might undermine his chances of becoming the next Prime Minister would be to overlook the crucial point governing the Conservative Party’s leadership election, which is that Johnson’s character—jocose, undiplomatic, entitled—is the thing that Tory members like the most about him. It is hardly that questions about Johnson’s character have not been raised before: the list of offenses he has committed, professional and personal, minor and major, is well known. Did he embroider the truth and fabricate facts as a journalist? Yes. Did he tell voters on the campaign trail that voting Tory would “cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3”? Yes. Was he obliged, only last year, to apologize to the House of Commons after failing to declare outside income as an M.P.? Yes. Has he been known, even celebrated, for decades, as a world-class philanderer? Yes. Has he deployed his old Etonian charm, and a rhetorical charisma honed in the vaunted chamber of the Oxford Union, in the service of a vacuous superciliousness that has propelled him almost to the top of Britain’s political establishment? Most certainly.
That Johnson is undisciplined, careless, and arrogant could not be more widely documented or better known. That these qualities are cherished in him by the Conservative Party faithful—who will, because of the peculiarities of British parliamentary democracy, get to choose the Prime Minister for the rest of the country—could not be more transparent. On Sunday, the Telegraph issued an editorial that dismissed the domestic-disturbance incident as “a flaming row with his girlfriend for getting wine on the sofa,” and compared Johnson not to the current incumbent of the White House but to another American President who also enjoyed the benefits of a cult of personality, even though he had what his detractors might have considered deficiencies that should have disqualified him for office: Ronald Reagan. Like Johnson, Reagan was “whimsical, too fond of jokes, and not always focused,” the paper observed. Yet Reagan translated those qualities into the material of leadership: “He was clear about big issues, a good picker, could set a direction, always exuded bonhomie, and eventually achieved what others thought beyond not just his but anyone else’s capacity.” Johnson, the paper said, had the potential to do the same. (It failed to note that in his second marriage, at least, Reagan was uxorious, a characteristic he appears not to share with his would-be British counterpart.)
There is still time for Boris Johnson not to become Prime Minister. Johnson and Hunt are due to appear at hustings all over the country in the course of the next month, before the final votes are tallied, in the week of July 22nd. Given four more weeks of campaign-trail scrutiny, anything is possible. But, judging by Johnson’s decades-long record of doing and saying the wrong thing and yet thriving—and measuring the odds against Hunt, who is inveterately unexciting, and whose support of the outgoing Prime Minister has caused him to be characterized disparagingly as “Theresa in trousers”—in order to truly eliminate his chances of becoming Prime Minister, the person Johnson would have to shoot is himself.