MANCHESTER, England—There’s a fine British tradition of the charming rogue. For centuries, well-heeled gentlemen with wandering eyes have been castigated—but also romanticized—as bounders, philanderers and cads.
With a string of affairs to his name and an unknown number of children sprung from his loins, Boris Johnson became Britain’s patron saint of bounders, bounding all the way to No. 10.
That carefully-honed reputation took a dark turn this week when a former colleague came forward to describe the future prime minister touching her upper thigh without her consent at a magazine lunch 20 years ago.
Charlotte Edwardes says she was sitting next to her sometime boss—she occasionally wrote articles for the Spectator where Johnson was editor—when it happened.
“Under the table, I feel Johnson’s hand on my thigh. He gives it a squeeze. His hand is high up my leg and he has enough inner flesh beneath his fingers to make me sit suddenly upright,” she wrote in The Sunday Times.
“Afterwards, I confide in the young woman on his other side. She replies: ‘Oh God, he did exactly the same to me.’”
Johnson has a long dishonorable history with women which includes cheating on them; fighting over who should pay for an abortion; having the police called to a domestic dispute; getting fired for lying to cover up an affair; and the outright refusal to admit how many children he has—it’s at least five. Until now, however, he has never been publicly accused of sexual assault or harassment.
The serious nature of the accusation forced him to break his rule of refusing to deny or even address stories about his private life. He says it is “not true.”
As they scramble to cover for him, cabinet ministers are struggling to get through interviews at the party’s annual conference in Manchester. Most have tried to say they can’t comment on the accusation, or simply say they trust the prime minister’s denial.
One cabinet minister took the contortions a step further, telling The Daily Beast that the allegation was part of an anti-Brexit plot to stop the PM.
“Obviously those are questions that will be put to the prime minister and I think what its symptomatic of is that people who do not want Brexit to happen will use anything they can to throw at it,” said Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for culture.
Surely she wasn’t suggesting Edwardes had invented the allegation to try and stop Brexit? “No, but I'm not involved so how would I know?” Morgan said.
Johnson himself hinted that a malign anti-Brexit motivation might lie behind the claim; bringing up the implementation of the 2016 referendum when asked about the allegation on the BBC on Tuesday.
“This is a very difficult time and people are thinking of the country in the sense that Brexit is about to be done and a lot of people don’t want Brexit to be done,” he said. “They conceive of me as the person who is helping to deliver Brexit, and it’s inevitable that I’m going to come under a certain amount of shot and shell.”
Edwardes is not the only woman from his past who is overshadowing Johnson’s policy announcements at a conference that was supposed to be a de facto general election launch. He has been accused of using his position as Mayor of London to help an American businesswoman with whom he was allegedly having an affair.
The London Assembly has referred allegations of misconduct in public office to the Independent Office for Police Conduct after it was reported that Johnson helped the former model to secure grants for her company and took her on international trade missions with him despite her business not meeting the requirements.
Johnson has refused to deny that he was having an affair with Jennifer Arcuri, but he claims that when it came to helping her business “everything was done entirely in the proper way.”
The claims of potential financial impropriety—she also reportedly secured a valuable entrepreneur visa after Johnson had promoted her start-up—mean stories about this affair will also prove difficult to sweep away.
Morgan optimistically claimed that Johnson’s personal troubles were a non-issue for the thousands of delegates, local politicians, Members of Parliament and Conservative campaigners at conference: “Apart from journalists no one else has talked about it, no activists, no MPs,” she said.
Perhaps it’s true that no one has mentioned it to Morgan—one of the most senior women in the Cabinet—but the issue is most certainly being debated at the fringe events and parties here in Manchester.
Some activists fear these revelations will continue to sour people’s views on the prime minister ahead of an election which is expected to take place before the end of the year. A poll done last week—before the latest round of stories—already showed that 47 percent of women described Johnson as “dislikeable.”
One Conservative party grandee told The Daily Beast that he thought Johnson’s dalliances were already so well known by the public that—in the language of stock market speculators—the latest claims had already been ‘priced in’ to their valuation of the prime minister.
“I think quite a lot of it's in the price, I don't think anybody elected Boris as leader thinking that he had a blameless private life,” he said. “I also think both the party and the public are much less concerned than used to be the case, and so I don't think that’s a huge concern.”
Opposition lawmakers are using the Arcuri claims to emphasize their attacks on the prime minister’s integrity. “It is a deeply worrying pattern of behavior that speaks to the fundamental question of Boris Johnson’s character,” said Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson.
It may be that ultimately the groping accusation—reminiscent of President Trump’s Access Hollywood tape—is what sticks in the minds of the public. We won’t have long to wait to find out with an election on the horizon and the chance for voters to deliver their verdict on then man the U.S. president has dubbed “Britain Trump.”