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Quiz Boris Johnson about flat row, says bishop

27 June 2019

It is of legitimate interest, the Bishop of Liverpool argues


BORIS JOHNSON must answer questions about the row which resulted in a police call-out to the flat he shares with his girlfriend, the Bishop of Liverpool has said, declaring that it would be “inappropriate” for a candidate for Prime Minister to refuse to do so.

The Bishop, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said on Tuesday that he regretted the “politicisation” of the debate. Mr Johnson’s supporters described the neighbours who called police after hearing screams and shouting coming from Carrie Symonds’ flat as “politically motivated”.

“I do not want to see a country where, if you hear someone screaming in a neighbouring flat, you have to question your politics before you call for help,” Bishop Bayes said.

Queries about the row, and wider questions about Mr Johnson’s private life, have dominated the past few days of the Conservative leadership debate. Mr Johnson has dodged repeated questions from the media over the issue, saying that it was a private matter, and telling the BBC: “I do not talk about stuff involving my family, my loved ones.”

The other contender for the leadership, Jeremy Hunt, has made no direct attempt to benefit from his rival’s discomfiture, but has concentrated his most recent remarks on integrity. Writing in The Times on Monday, he said: “I am not interested in debating Boris’s private life. But I do want to quiz him on how he can ‘guarantee’ we will leave the EU on October 31. . .

“A new prime minister needs the legitimacy of having made his arguments publicly and having them subjected to scrutiny.”

On Tuesday, speaking to the BBC, he linked Brexit and trustworthiness: “The judgement is — who is the person we trust as prime minister to go to Brussels and bring back that deal? If you choose someone where there is no trust, there’s going to be no negotiation, no deal and quite possibly a general election — which can mean we have no Brexit either.”

Bishop Bayes said that it was appropriate for journalists to ask questions about the domestic incident, given that Mr Johnson was a public figure and the police were involved.

“Cressida Dick [the Metropolitan Police Commissioner] has said that people were right to call the police. The question for a politician is . . . if it happens and is in the public domain and they are a public figure, then it is inappropriate for them to say it’s a private matter.”

He said that the truth had to be tested, or be devalued further. “We need more experts, more robust journalism, and more politicians who are prepared to be questioned robustly by journalists. I worry about [the lack of] willingness of politicians to be held to account by journalists.”

The research director of the William Temple Foundation, which analyses the relationship between religion and public life, Professor Chris Baker, said that the release of a photo of Ms Symonds and Mr Johnson by the Johnson team, purportedly showing the couple in friendly conversation after the row, had negated their ability to claim a right to privacy.

The public did still care about personal integrity, Professor Baker said, as it “sheds light on the abilities and characteristics of the person beneath the public façade. . .

“Most people are looking for a sense of integrity in their politicians, a belief that public actions arise from a focused and morally compassed private life. We understand the odd indiscretion, but when a picture of inconsistency is built up, if a person is unable to sustain a relationship, it raises important questions of fitness for public office.”

He feared that, for Anglicans who were Conservatives, it seemed that the “sense of Englishness and future Englishness is more important than private morality”.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, whose area covers Mr Johnson’s Uxbridge constituency, said on Wednesday that people needed to pray for politicians more than ever. “We are in a sorry state in relation to our national politics.”

Politics should not be about private lives but about “policies and principles”, he said. The likely coronation of Mr Johnson as Conservative leader and Prime Minister, however, was a “huge let-down” for the Conservative Party of Disraeli and Churchill, owing to his “lack of substance” and “lack of any kind of coherence in relation to his policies. . .

“He makes them up as he goes along, and he is quite prepared to indulge in the approach taken by President Trump — to say something one minute and then to deny the next he ever said it.”

One political commentator, Peter Oborne, has argued, however, that writing about a politician’s private life was relatively new in British politics.

Speaking on Tuesday, he said: “If you go back to the 19th century, lots of politicians kept mistresses and had complex private lives, and they were not reported upon, barring perhaps a really high-profile divorce or a scandal, and that is how the British press went on for decades.

“Then John Major’s back-to-basics catastrophe — which was interpreted as a return to ‘traditional morality’ — was seen to give a free licence to press to expose any irregularity.

“Since New Labour, who put a lid on all that, it has been a situation of, ‘As long as there are no laws being broken, it is no business of ours’. That is why the media ignored Boris’s private life.

“However, last week’s Guardian story has given parts of the media the opportunity to rewrite the rule book yet again.”

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