Monday 14 October 2019

Opinion: Boris's bid to shift focus may put him out of frame to be PM

Picture paints a thousand words - but this one raises even more questions

The real deal?: The ‘leaked’ photo has been described as poorly staged and has provoked several odd conspiracy theories
The real deal?: The ‘leaked’ photo has been described as poorly staged and has provoked several odd conspiracy theories

Camilla Tominey and Robert Mendick

They were the lovestruck images intended to bury what has been a weekend of bad news for Boris Johnson.

It was hoped the grainy pictures, showing the would-be prime minister hand-in-hand with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, would move attention on from torrid tabloid headlines such as 'Boris Wants To Get Back With His Wife' and 'Boris And Carrie: Four Rows in Six Weeks'. Yet the photo 'exclusive', showing the couple 'together for the first time' since their 'police row', raised more questions than answers about a saga which began with a spilt glass of red wine in the early hours of Friday morning.

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It is still not clear when the images, which carry all the hallmarks of being staged, were taken, or where or by whom.

With no official confirmation of such facts forthcoming from Mr Johnson's team after they emerged online yesterday, the Westminster rumour mill has continued to churn over.

Aides had hoped coverage of the incident, in which Ms Symonds was allegedly heard yelling "get off me" and "get out of my flat", would have died down after the neighbours who handed a recording of the row to the police and 'The Guardian' newspaper were exposed as left-wing Remainers.

Friends last night accused the neighbours of being part of a politically motivated attack that has culminated in the couple's Camberwell flat being besieged by protesters, and dismissed rumours of a split, insisting that Mr Johnson (55) and his 31-year-old girlfriend "love each other very much and want to get married as soon as the time is right".

According to Ms Symonds's close friend Nimco Ali: "This whole thing has brought them even closer together."

Yet with insiders suggesting that Ms Symonds was the driving force behind what appeared to have all the hallmarks of staged photographs, could the clumsy PR attempt actually have done more harm than good?

Believed to have been taken by one of Ms Symonds' female friends in the Sussex garden of another close confidante, the two cameraphone pictures first raised eyebrows when they appeared on a news website without any credit or fees attached yesterday morning.

Although dressed down in a checked shirt and with his back to the camera, Mr Johnson appears unmistakable.

Parallels were inevitably drawn with David and Victoria Beckham's stage-managed show of togetherness in the French Alps following his alleged 2004 affair with Rebecca Loos, and the first "picnic table" image that emerged of Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley following his encounter with prostitute Divine Brown in 1995.

As one paparazzo told 'The Telegraph': "The whole thing is so obviously staged. It's real amateur hour stuff. If you wanted to do it properly you'd have used a long lens and have people in the way to make it look more authentic. And if it had been taken by a real photographer, of course they would have charged for it. The fact that it was put out without anyone's name on it, for nothing, tells you it was an inside job."

It is thought to be the third time Ms Symonds has enlisted the friend to take a staged photograph. A similar picture appeared on the Mail Online website last September after she was thrust into the public domain following the news that Mr Johnson was separating from Marina Wheeler, his wife of 25 years. The image, which carried no credit or fee, again showed Ms Symonds sitting at a table in the countryside. According to sources, another photograph was staged in January, this time in a car park, and featured Ms Symonds walking with Mr Johnson. The accompanying story suggested the couple were "clearly smitten".

To add to the confusion, sources close to Mr Johnson, who has vehemently refused to discuss his private life, including in an interview on last night's 'News At Ten' with the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg, said he had been resistant to the idea of appearing in public with his girlfriend to debunk suggestions that they are about to split up.

Instead, he appeared keen to reset the dial with a column in 'The Daily Telegraph' yesterday morning renewing his commitment to leaving the European Union on October 31.

In an attempt to turn the attention from his personal life to his policies, he insisted he would not "bottle Brexit", saying "we can, we must and we will" leave on the promised date.

The comments hit back at his rival Jeremy Hunt, who told him not to "bottle it" when asked to take part in another television debate and address criticism that he has been wavering over the exit date. Writing on the third anniversary of the referendum result, Mr Johnson declared that the focus once Brexit is done should be to "turbocharge" the economy, adding: "What do you want? Higher pay under the Tories or higher taxes under Labour?"

Mr Johnson's supporters, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, took to the airwaves to defend him, describing the people who made the recording as "Corbynista curtain twitchers".

Mr Rees-Mogg told LBC: "I think the idea that snooping neighbours are recording what is going on for political advantage and then class war protesters are coming to politicians' front doors is not a good place for politics to be."

The neighbours who made the recording, Tom Penn (29) and Eve Leigh (34) deny any political motivation. Mr Penn said: "To be clear, the recordings were of the noise within my own home. My sole concern up until this point was the welfare and safety of our neighbours. I hope that anybody would have done the same thing."

The staged photographs now open the couple up to the altogether more undermining accusation that they have invaded their own privacy. They have also fuelled a number of conspiracy theories online, including suggestions that the photographs were taken before Sunday, and that they might not even feature Mr Johnson but a lookalike.

Such suggestions are not what Mr Johnson's campaign team wants the public to focus on; bookmakers have shortened the odds of his rival Mr Hunt becoming the next prime minister to 9/2 since Thursday night. "What looked like a one-horse race could develop into a proper competition for punters if controversy continues to plague him through the contest," said Katie Bayliss of Betfair.

Having been accused by the foreign secretary of "ducking" today's planned Sky News debate, one of Mr Johnson's supporters criticised Mr Hunt, saying he was in danger of losing his "carefully cultivated Mr Nice Guy image".

The veteran Tory said: "Mr Nice is turning into Mr Nasty over this. He's doing the one thing you should never do in a campaign which is get sucked into what the other side are doing. This storm in a teacup doesn't change anything. I don't know of one Conservative Party member who has changed their minds about Boris over this. He's been very clear - he won't discuss his private life and nor should he. A lot of the membership sympathise with him."

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