Boris Johnson must answer questions of how his private life – particularly his “very close bond” with Jennifer Arcuri – impacted on his public duties, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
It has been a blistering week so far for the good old non-denial. With the 24-hour rolling news cycle and the endlessly looping carousel of social media posing more questions than ever before, the answers are dwindling in number. Or at least, the substantive ones are.
For Jennifer Arcuri, a woman who has already discovered to her cost that the price of a friendship with Boris Johnson is having to talk to Piers Morgan for an hour, any inexperience in the gladiatorial arena of British politics did not prevent her from knowing when to hoist aloft her shield at the appropriate moment.
In an interview with the chief interlocutor of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Ms Arcuri was asked not once, but six times, if she had an affair with Mr Johnson, an allegation she repeatedly refused to deny. “I’m not going to put myself in a position where you can weaponise my answer,” she explained at one point.
It is a fair observation, albeit a disingenuous one in light of the fact she was reportedly paid a five-figure sum for submitting herself to scrutiny in the knowledge that such an enquiry would rear its head.
Even so, it is worth remembering that Ms Arcuri, though undoubtedly an interesting character, not least for her ability to incubate a burgeoning tech giant from a Shoreditch flat complete with a bespoke dancer’s pole – is the pole tax deductible for home workers? – belongs firmly on the periphery of this story.
Such questions are best directed not to her, but the Prime Minister. And in fairness, they have been.
Repeatedly. Mr Johnson was quizzed multiple times last week whether he had a sexual relationship with Ms Arcuri. He too has repeatedly refused to deny it.
Arcuri entitled to private life
Come Monday, when he was pressed on whether the relationship impacted on his responsibilities during his tenure as mayor of London, he gave an answer befitting an annoyingly precocious seven-year-old when asked, for the final time, where the television remote is.
“I’ve said everything I’m going to say on that particular subject,” Mr Johnson replied. Which will be news, no doubt, to the Greater London Authority (GLA), which also asked him to provide details of his ties with Ms Arcuri.
In recent days, there has been a growing disquiet over the media focus on this relationship, and in particular, the insistence that its precise nature be revealed. In what was her first – but surely not last – broadcast interview, Ms Arcuri confirmed she and the Prime Minister had a “very close bond”.
That will not be enough to stop further questions being asked about any alleged affair, which seem to me unnecessary on two fronts.
Firstly, for all that Ms Arcuri courts publicity, she is entitled to a private life. Secondly, and much more importantly, the growing scandal should be concerned with the claims public funds have been misused. Having made clear that she and Mr Johnson had a close relationship, Ms Arcuri has said all she really needs to.
The GLA’s code of conduct is clear cut. It states that public office holders, including the mayor, “have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest”.
The more salaciously minded among us may wish to know more about that pole, and whether the Prime Minister ever utilised it to strengthen his not inconsiderable core, but the parameters of any investigation by the GLA do not need to be expanded quite so far.
Whether or not their relationship was sexual in nature has no bearing on the potential for conflicts of interest to arise. What is important now is that we receive answers about the numerous questions focused on Mr Johnson’s mayoral stint.
Did he play in role the awarding of more than £126,000 of public money to a string of Ms Arcuri’s start-up companies? Did he personally write a letter of recommendation when she was applying for a £100,000-a-year job at the helm of a technology quango? Did he intervene to ensure she was able to accompany him on several overseas trade missions? And did he declare an interest regarding any of the above?
There is a clear need for transparency and accountability, and an appreciation that whatever Mr Johnson got up to in his private life may have had a bearing on his public duties.
When the journalist, Charlotte Edwardes, made allegations last month that Mr Johnson touched her inner thigh during a private lunch some 20 years ago, the most striking rebuttals came not from Downing Street, but elsewhere in the Conservative party.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said Mr Johnson “never lectured people about their private lives”, which was, and is, an extraordinary response to allegations of that nature. It also points to a sense of entitlement and a presumption that there an unmovable buffer separating the private and public lives of senior politicians.
Yes, they have to the right to an expectation of privacy, but when their actions knowingly entangle the two, and prompt continued claims of potential impropriety, the defences start to fall apart.
The tried and tested non-denial is one of the last safeguards remaining, but even it becomes brittle. The questions will continue. Mr Johnson should answer them.