‘Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex
JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say’
– Billy Joel, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’
On the 4th of June 1963, John Profumo, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, resigned in disgrace. He had lied to Parliament, lied to his wife and lied to the Prime Minister. The charges? Profumo had engaged in an affair with one Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model who was also allegedly sleeping with a Soviet naval attaché. Uh oh. The press couldn’t get enough of it, an inquiry was called and the scandal threatened to destroy Harold Macmillan’s government.
Fifty-six years later, allegations emerged that Boris Johnson, during his tenure as Mayor of London, awarded privileged access and public money to an American businesswoman with whom he shared a ‘very close bond.’ Oh, and the two might also have had sex, which is obviously the issue with which the British press appears most concerned.
At the time of writing, the row is yet to present any existential danger to Johnson’s government. That’s partly because almost everything in the news cycle is being drowned out by Brexit, partly because of his character (does anyone seriously believe that had it been Theresa May, or, heavens forbid, Jo Swinson, our press would apply to them the same lax scrutiny as they have thus far to “alpha male” Boris? Doubtful.) and partly because Johnson has had more affairs than his predecessor had meaningful votes.
So when the woman in question appeared on Good Morning Britain, the first question which very serious journalist Piers Morgan really wanted to be answered was, did you have an ‘intimate’ relationship with the PM?
But that is ultimately irrelevant, for the conflict of interest had already been established. We already know that the two had been close friends when the funds in question were awarded and the alleged favouritism took place. We already know that Johnson failed to disclose any such interest (regardless of how far their relationship extended).
It is much easier to sell newspapers when dodgy dealings involve sex, yet it is the typical, boring, conflicts of interest that should concern us most. Precisely because they are so typical, so pervasive and so often ignored.
In March of last year, revelations surfaced that the wife of Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance minister, one Ms. Chernukhin, had donated £160,000 to the Conservative Party in exchange for a private game of tennis with Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary. She also paid £30,000 for a dinner with then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson (Lord knows why someone would willingly inflict such a thing upon themselves). The story made a number of national newspapers and shortly fizzled out. There was no sex on the tennis court so no one cared.
Then, earlier this year, very savvy political operator Liz Truss accidentally revealed on Instagram that the very same Ms. Chernukhin had paid another £135,000 to have dinner with herself, Theresa May and a number of other cabinet ministers at a swanky five-star hotel two blocks from Buckingham Palace. No one cared.
To be clear, there is no reason to believe that either Ms. Chernukhin or the Conservative Party acted unlawfully. But there are serious questions to be asked regarding the role of money in buying political influence and whether business and government can occasionally appear a little too close for comfort. And there would be nothing illegal if a cabinet minister was found in the bed of a Russian oligarch, or his wife, but it’s impossible to deny that the issue would go away so swiftly. Alas, no sex, no story.
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