Monday 21 October 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Sex, lies and Downing Street'

Boris Johnson is a philanderer, but he never pretended otherwise

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It's a universally acknowledged point that Ireland has changed dramatically in recent decades - the latest referendum to liberalise divorce being further evidence.

And so it has changed. But so has everywhere else. I find it difficult to equate the sleek, sophisticated Russian females of the present generation as being from the same gene pool as the stern Soviet baboushkas I encountered in the 1980s and '90s.

Excepting the Islamic world, almost everywhere has grown more liberal in manners and mores.

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Margaret Thatcher concealed from the public realm that her husband Denis was a divorced man when she married him - until a sharp gossip writer, Nigel Dempster, ferreted it out. Being divorced while aiming for high office was not then recommended in Britain. The previous divorcé to get to 10 Downing Street, Anthony Eden, had also kept his marital status firmly in the background, and when it was mentioned, it was much emphasised that he had been the "innocent" party in the marital break-up. It was his first wife who had strayed, not he.

The first divorced American president was Ronald Reagan: paradoxically, he was so emphatically Christian in other respects that it didn't seem to count. As it happens, I interviewed Reagan's first wife, Jane Wyman, when I was a young journalist: she was just about the most modest movie actress you could encounter and she didn't have a bad word to say - disappointingly for me, looking for something juicy - about Ronnie.

And now it seems as though the next prime minister of the UK will be a man who is embarking on his third marriage (to a lady 24 years younger). He is, moreover, widely and frequently described as a "philanderer": one extra-marital affair resulted in the birth of his daughter, Stephanie; another resulted in an abortion.

Boris Johnson is the bookies' favourite, by a country mile, and sometimes the favourite doesn't win the race: but he is regarded as the most likely candidate. He is also the voters' favourite - said to be endorsed by 83pc of the Tory voters, who care not a jot, it seems, for his philandering reputation.

Max Hastings, who as sometime editor of the Daily Telegraph, employed Boris Johnson, has described him as a "serial bonker and manic self-publicist", but it doesn't seem to make much difference to the grass roots.

Matthew Parris, a gay man of liberal disposition, has described Boris as a "rat" and a "rascal" whose character displays "moral turpitude". Perhaps, wrote Parris, this is a trait we should "overlook in politics but which has been so destructive of others' lives that I cannot forget it". He also says that Boris has a "casual disregard for the truth", as well as being reckless, capricious, with a lazy grasp of detail.

"Moral turpitude" - conduct which falls far below the accepted standard of decent behaviour - would have been toxic for a politician a few decades ago, but all this invective brushes off Boris like summer rain. His voting public pay scant attention to the philandering charges. Boris has never put himself up as a plaster saint.

The modern sin is not an offence against any moral order, but hypocrisy. Boris is an honest philanderer - he has never pretended otherwise. And being "honest" about one's failings is the plenary indulgence of contemporary life - it lets you off almost all the other sins.

He's also a successful philander. Nobody is known to have complained about an unwanted advance from Boris. Amorous advances from Boris seem to have been welcomed - although the young woman who had an abortion when he declined to marry her, Petronella Wyatt, has written poignantly, even distressingly, about how rueful she feels now about that experience.

Boris Johnson has got into more trouble for criticising the burqas worn by Islamic women - comparing their appearance to "letter-boxes" - and for saying that the queen loves the Commonwealth because of the "regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies", than for all the "serial bonking" or even "moral turpitude".

The notion that a man - or a woman -in high public office should be a pillar of personal rectitude, as De Valera and De Gaulle were, is well gone. Boris has been accused of lying, when in public office, over the Brexit campaign bus (and the claim that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU), but that charge has increased rather than decreased public sympathy for him.

I won't say I know Boris, but I've encountered him in journalistic circles and he makes himself very likeable, with his apparently chaotic ways, last minute deadlines and comedic manner. And are Christians not enjoined to refrain from judging the personal failings of others?

The prevailing idea today is that personal life has nothing to do with the qualities of leadership or effective judgement in office. A virtuous person can be a bad leader: a flawed person can be an inspirational leader.

Ireland has just played host to President Trump, who, as it happens, is also thrice-married and has stood accused of moral failings. But what's the betting that he too will be returned to high office in 2020?

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