It’s not hard to work out the ‘lines to take’ that are being handed out from Boris Johnson’s team to his surrogates in politics and the media after the police were called to the flat he’s been living in.
‘It’s a private matter. It’s an invasion of privacy. The neighbour who taped the incident, called the cops and tipped The Guardian (yes, The Guardian) clearly has an agenda. This is the same sort of smear they’ve tried against poor old Mark Field. All couples have rows. It was just a domestic. Besides, women commit at least as much domestic violence as men.’
I won’t bother to record here my contempt for people who downplay the importance of domestic violence because it suits their politics or agenda, beyond saying this: the ‘it’s just a domestic’ argument helps get women killed. Are you really comfortable supporting that in order to further the interests of your candidate or your career?
Those who defend Boris Johnson today are taking a huge risk, because this story is far from over. It might never be over, in fact, because of that recording. If The Guardian account is accurate (and no one has yet disputed it) there is audio of the man who would lead this country shouting and swearing at a woman, who in turn shouts ‘get off me’ and tells him to leave.
Right now, The Guardian isn’t releasing that audio. It may never do so. But it exists and the person who made it evidently wants it — or at least its contents— in the public domain. The odds are it will eventually become public. I’m writing this about 14 hours after the story broke. By now, the person who made the tape has been found and contacted by media outlets, some offering large sums for the recording. And if it is made public, it will never, ever go away. Johnson’s conversation with Darius Guppy about having a reporter beaten up was made 29 years ago and remains part of the Johnson story today.
Of course, it’s possible that Johnson’s team – who are very good at what they do – will manage to keep the recording private. They might even manage to spin the story over the next 48 hours, throwing out distracting ‘dead cats’, and attacking the neighbour, the police, The Guardian. There may even — God help us all — be joint interviews and statements. There are sadly enough people willing to set aside principle and judgment to make themselves useful to a future prime minister, regardless of their private doubts about him.
And of course there are a lot of people very sympathetic to a narrative that paints an outspoken middle-aged man as the victim of a conspiracy by the liberal media elite to bring him down. Quite a lot of those people have a vote on who leads the Conservative Party next. And the country as a whole still doesn’t take violence (physical and emotional) against women seriously enough. It’s still more likely than not that Boris Johnson ends up in No 10.
But even if that all happens, the fundamental danger to Boris Johnson’s ambitions will remain. In fact, suppressing the tape is probably the bigger risk. While it’s secret and only partially quoted, anyone can imagine anything they want on it. The Mueller Report was far more damaging to Donald Trump when it was unpublished and secret than in the public domain.
And let’s imagine Johnson still wins the premiership and takes office – then the tape goes public. What then? A prime minister can be destroyed just as much as a candidate can.
The bottom line is that this story cannot be shrugged off as a private matter or another confected skirmish in the culture war. It is and will remain a real threat to Boris Johnson unless two conditions are met. First, that recording is made public. Second, it establishes he is blameless.
And until those conditions are met, people in politics and the media and the wider public should think long and hard before putting their trust and confidence in Boris Johnson. Until you’ve heard that tape and know what happened in that flat that night, you can’t be sure you know who and what the man is.