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The prime minister’s veil

The prime minister’s veil

We know startlingly little about Boris Johnson’s state of health or the health of his finances – much less than Americans have come to expect they should know about their President. In the week when President Trump’s tax returns finally saw the light of day it’s time we looked again. What’s legitimately private for a British prime minister, and what does the public interest demand that we should see?


The news that Donald Trump has tested positive for coronavirus dropped this morning. I hope it explains why, in this week’s editor’s voicemail, I want to pick up on two fragments of news that served as footnotes to other stories, two small items that speak to one inescapable fact in 2020: all politics is personal.

In order to put an end to the speculation that he had popped for a mini-break to Perugia last month, Downing Street issued a short statement to say that Boris Johnson, the prime minister, had not been in Italy, but in London with his fiancee Carrie Symonds, on Saturday, 12 September: they were attending the the baptism of their son Wilfred, as a Roman Catholic, at Westminster Cathedral.

Few people seem to have paid the announcement much attention, except as a rebuttal to the more salacious suggestion that Boris Johnson had done a bunk from Britain to attend another of Evgeny Lebdev – now, thanks to Mr Johnson, Lord Lebedev’s – famously dissolute parties in Umbria.

Surely, it’s much more significant – even if it’s generated far less news in print or noise online – that Mr Johnson had been at Westminster Cathedral, as Father Daniel Humphreys sprinkled baptism water and made the sign of the cross on the head of his four-month old son.

Symonds and Johnson are not married. She is a Catholic. He was baptized a Catholic but then confirmed as an Anglican at Eton. Had it not been for that, he would have been Britain’s first Catholic prime minister (Tony Blair was welcomed into Roman Catholicism after he left Downing Street.). What is the faith of Britain’s prime minister – Catholic, Anglican or none? What does it matter? What business is it of ours, anyway?

In the US, one element of the extraordinary New York Times trove of details about Donald Trump’s taxes and business dealings stood out beyond the $750 he’d paid in income tax in the first year of his presidency. It stood out beyond the $72.9 million tax refund he took that’s now being contested by the Internal Revenue Service. And it stood out beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars of losses and loans to his name.

It was this: Ivanka Trump, the First Daughter, advisor to the president and long-time executive of the Trump Organisation, appears to have been paid additional consultancy fees on property projects which enriched her and reduced the Trump tax bill. What then are the financial circumstances of the first family? What measures of tax avoidance do they use? And it’s a family business, so you might say what business is it of ours?

Hello, I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and this week I want to suggest that it’s time to think again about privacy and public life. In 2020, the health, financial and family circumstances of the British prime minister and the US president have, each in their own way, reminded us that their private lives play out in ours.

My thinking on the contentious subject of privacy was shaped – or I should say, reshaped – by Matt Bai’s exceptionally good book: All the truth is out: the week politics went tabloid. It does much more than chart how the rumours of Gary Hart’s marital infidelity sank his bid for the presidency in 1987 – you’ll remember the story: the dashing Colorado Senator, frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, the photograph with Donna Rice on a yacht called Monkey Business, the invitation to the press to “follow me around”. Bai’s book explores how the press, which for decades had considered the sex life of politicians and public figures as a private matter, suddenly turned. Using the justification that personal behaviour was a measure of character and, therefore, a subject in the public interest, the press took a new interest in what those seeking high office did in the bedroom. Bai’s book is brilliant in marking a moment when the ethics of the media and expectations of politicians shifted.

In the years since, though, they’ve shifted back, gradually. There may be an ongoing debate about the idea of the public interest, i.e. what citizens need to know. But the public’s idea of what’s interesting has changed.

When Boris Johnson led his party to an election victory last December, he did so even as his campaign declined to answer how many children the prime minister has fathered. The fact that he’s had a history of lovers and love affairs is one thing; the fact that his campaign did not feel it necessary to put to rest questions of paternity and family is another; and the fact that it didn’t dent his popularity with the public even a bit, well, that’s is a third. Not only did Mr Johnson lead the Conservatives to an 80-seat majority, he did so by being much more popular than his party.

In the US, the October surprise four years ago was a tape recording of Donald Trump talking about how he forces himself on women – the phrased he used was “Grab ’em by the pussy”. In November, he was elected president.

But, to my mind, the balance between the public interest and the privacy rights of our most senior elected officials is shifting again. Or, at least, it should.

Last September, just over a year ago, I recorded one of these weekly voicemails to say that London was full of talk about the rift among the royals: the rumours that Harry and Meghan had fallen out with William and Kate, the worry that the Jeffrey Epstein story would keep pursuing Prince Andrew. The idea that the Royal Household itself was splintering apart.

This summer, London has been awash with stories too, stories simmering about the prime minister.

In among the commentary that the exuberant old Boris Johnson is missing and in his place there is a prime minister who is not as sharp as he was, who is privately miserable, who is personally isolated, there are these three personal questions that attend on him.

One is how is his health? In the UK, there’s no official doctor for our head of government, nor a regular public accounting of her or his health. Downing Street stonewalls any question the prime minister may be suffering any symptoms long covid, i.e. the lingering effects of his hospitalisation at the hands of the coronavirus in the spring. Instead, we’re left with hearsay and anecdote – the observation of him less than his best in the Commons, those in meetings reporting back that his attention drifts. Many people who were taken into intensive care still have trouble breathing and sleeping, many have not gone back to work – Boris Johnson has. He’s gone back to the hardest job in the country at the hardest time in nearly a century. Those close to him tell you that it’s only in the last few weeks that he’s got back to full strength. But then, they were saying exactly the same three months ago.

The second question is how are things going with Carrie? This paragraph in the New Statesman at the start of the summer from Tim Montgomerie, the Conservative columnist and once one of Boris Johnson’s great cheerleaders, judiciously put in print what many people have been saying more colourfully in private over the summer. It was about “the role his former wife, Marina, played in his life. An extraordinary brain; unafraid to dispense home truths. She was his anchor and, despite everything, had been for most of his adulthood. He’s now divorced and, while I wish nothing but happiness for Johnson and Carrie Symonds, I can’t make sense of so much of his turbulent time in Downing Street without thinking that the turbulence in his private life does a great deal of the explaining.” To decode: Carrie Symonds, it’s said, is understandably prone to suspect that when Johnson is out of sight he’s up to no good. She’s the mother of a four month old baby living in what any former prime minister will tell you is the strangely infuriating, confining set-up of the PM’s upstairs flat in Downing St. And whereas Marina and he drifted apart romantically, she was intellectually engaged in Johnson’s politics; his relationship with Carrie is more emotionally demanding and professionally disruptive. Montgomerie’s conclusion: “Few of us would be unaffected in similar circumstances, especially if a serious illness had been layered on top.”

And the third question is how are the money worries? Boris Johnson is, in many ways, deliberately Churchillian; financially, he unfortunately also echoes his hero, who so often found himself in a financial hole, trying to write a book, a piece for the newspapers or give a speech just to pay the bills. Boris Johnson’s divorce and the financial support needed for his four children with Marina, as well as the birth of his son Wilfred, increased the Prime Minister’s outgoings, not long after he lost his handsome salary as a Telegraph columnist and as he has struggled to find the time to complete the Shakespeare biography that, no doubt, will pay well on delivery and publication. But for now, he has little means of increasing his income and faces the all too easy temptation of accepting the generosity of friends.

Any person has rights to privacy for themselves and their families. Prime ministers and politicians too. More intrusion is only going to deter good people from turning their hands to politics.

But if the attempts to justify Gary Hart’s love life as a measure of his fitness for office were pompous excuses for nothing more than nosiness, then the idea that personal matters have no bearing on job performance are overdone as well. Over the past forty years, Britain’s politics has become ever more presidential. The power of the executive has moved from the Government’s benches in the Commons to the Cabinet to the person of the Prime Minister in Downing Street. The coronavirus in 2020 has, as with so much else, revealed that more keenly than ever – in the choices Johnson made before he succumbed to Covid-19, in his long absence when he was laid low by the illness, in his priorities and performance since he returned to work, in his authority to inform and influence the public in control of the pandemic. A government that swept to power on the promise of taking back control has this year looked out of control. The conduct and circumstances of the Prime Minister are central to this.

In the US, in the coming days and weeks, the public dynamics of Trump’s illness are going to remake not just the federal government at a critical moment in the pandemic, but the presidential election too. The UK has seen the pilot of this TV show, both with the boost to Johnson’s ratings when he fell ill and went into hospital and the slump in government performance and public support as he – and his government – were incapacitated by the illness. It’s hard to argue that the personal is none of our business.

Boris Johnson did not go to Perugia; he went to baptise his son. Is he a Catholic; is he a Protestant; or none of the above? Who knows? The former journalist and voluble talker is an extraordinarily obscure and defended figure in office.