All his life Boris Johnson has cut corners, ignored rules and flouted convention, both in his private and his professional life.
So far as I know, he has never been guilty of wickedness but has done plenty of silly things and a few reprehensible ones.
In every instance he has survived, if not unscathed then able to fight another day. Scandals which would have floored other politicians have in Boris’s case been mere embarrassments.
Will the great escapologist wriggle his way out of the latest spate of allegations engulfing him, of which by far the most serious is what has been dubbed ‘Wallpapergate’?
All his life Boris Johnson has cut corners, ignored rules and flouted convention, both in his private and his professional life
There’s no doubt that the investigation announced yesterday by the Electoral Commission is a serious development. There is a hint of menace in the Commission’s phrase that it is ‘satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred’.
It’s no good for Boris’s supporters to claim that the Electoral Commission is slightly Lefty and riddled with Remainers. It is an official body which could fine the Tory Party. Such a penalty would suggest wrongdoing, and possibly carry the imputation of disgrace.
Meanwhile, the respected former royal courtier Lord Geidt will conduct his own inquiries. No 10 confirmed yesterday that he had been appointed the new independent adviser on ministers’ interests, a role in abeyance since the resignation of Sir Alex Allan last November.
Nobody can predict the outcome of these investigations. But I think it’s reasonable to say, on the known evidence (all of which has been put in the public arena by this news-paper), that Boris Johnson has been an ass.
That’s an understatement. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom — a nuclear power and one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — has behaved like a feckless child.
What in God’s name was he thinking? He had £30,000 of public money to improve the flat above 11 Downing Street which he occupies with his fiancée Carrie Symonds, baby son Wilfred, and endlessly photographed dog Dilyn.
Largely because Boris and Carrie employed a fashionable designer called Lulu Lytle, the bill came in at £88,000. In other words, they had spent £58,000 they did not have.
It’s no good for Boris’s supporters to claim that the Electoral Commission is slightly Lefty and riddled with Remainers
We shouldn’t just blame the 33-year-old Carrie Symonds for this extravagance. Boris is a 56-year-old man supposedly capable of running the country. Frantically busy though he is, he could have pulled the plug on the refurbishment before costs ran out of control.
Having failed to do so, he should have taken his medicine like a grown-up, and applied for a bank loan for £58,000, or increased the mortgage on his Oxfordshire house. The repayments would have been painful but not prohibitive. Boris is paid £157,000 a year and Carrie has a decent five-figure salary.
But instead of confronting the consequences of his misjudgment, the Prime Minister looked around for a rich man to bail him out, and appears to have found one in businessman Lord Brownlow.
Although Mr Johnson now claims he has personally settled the bill, who paid what to whom, and when, remains cloudy — which is why the Electoral Commission is investigating.
It’s not against the rules to receive donations, but politicians must declare them so that the public can see who has given them money, and judge whether there has been any influence on their decisions. The Prime Minister has made no declaration.
He simply repeats the mantra that he has paid the bill and can’t understand why anyone should be concerned about it. This is what he reiterated during a stormy Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons yesterday when Sir Keir Starmer got under his skin.
So Boris has made three mistakes. He (and Carrie) overran on a vanity project. Instead of paying the bill, he cast around for someone to pick it up. And he has been involved in obfuscation — or a cover-up — which makes him look shifty.
What a stupid, self-inflicted wound! How crass and unnecessary! Some unhappy countries have vastly corrupt leaders. Vladimir Putin allegedly has an enormous secret palace such as Ian Fleming’s Blofeld might inhabit. We have Bojo, who trips himself up over a relatively small sum in redecorating a flat which is not even his own.
The moral of this story is not that the Prime Minister is venal. There is nothing to suggest that he is. No, in matters of money — at any rate in the personal sphere — the evidence is that he is a careless and chaotic man.
That is why there remains confusion (which an unfinished sleaze inquiry hasn’t dispelled) over who paid for a luxury holiday in Mustique said to have cost £15,000 which he and Carrie enjoyed some 16 months ago.
It explains why two years ago the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found Boris guilty of being late in declaring his financial interests on at least five occasions.
This is the Boris who on the eve of becoming Prime Minister spilt wine on Carrie Symonds’s sofa in her flat. She was heard to complain: ‘You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything.’
It is the Boris whose ancient people-carrier outside Carrie’s flat had parking tickets mouldering on its windscreen, and empty food cartons, crumpled clothes and plastic bags littering its interior. It is the Boris who missed five vital Cobra meetings in February 2020 as Covid-19 was gathering strength.
And it is the Boris who has lived a chaotic and self-indulgent private life, fathering two children outside marriage. He was thrown out of the marital home by his long-suffering wife after one affair, finally divorcing after another.
It is also the Boris who won’t come clean when he has erred, as over ‘Wallpapergate’, and is prepared to lie. Remember his ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’ after accurate Press reports of an affair in 2004?
I thought of that yesterday when he categorically denied in the Commons that he had privately said last October that he would ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’ rather than order another lockdown. Pray God he was not lying again.
But the rackety, careless, sometimes mendacious Boris — in temperament more like a dissolute 19th-century French painter than a conventional prime minister — is also the man who annihilated Corbynism and got Brexit done. He presides over the most successful vaccination programme in Europe, and has a vision for ‘levelling up’ millions of people.
Can a 56-year-old man change bad habits? I’m doubtful. It would help if there were experienced and wise heads close to him, but his wife Marina has left, and there is no worldly, disinterested Cabinet minister to advise him. He’s the oldest person in a lightweight No 10.
I expect he’ll survive the Electoral Commission inquiry, though Dominic Cummings lurks in the shadows with possibly explosive allegations. Whatever the disgruntled former chief adviser says, I don’t believe that the electorate or most Tory MPs have yet given up on Boris.
This can’t go on, though, lurching from one wearisome drama to another. The cavalier, ill-disciplined Boris Johnson needs to take an exceptionally hard look at himself, or voters will soon be taking a hard and unforgiving look at him.