The former foreign secretary is constantly embroiled in blunders and scandals that would see a woman in his position hung out to dry. It’s a sign of how men and women are held to very different standards in politics.
In no particular order, here are some things Boris Johnson has done in the last five weeks. He used his newspaper column to mock Muslim women who wear the burqa as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”, statements that the Muslim Council of Britain has said were followed by a spike in Islamophobic incidents. He has faced a fierce backlash for describing Theresa May’s Brexit plan as a “suicide vest”, and been criticised by his own party for his constant attempts to destabilise the PM. Just last week, he and his wife of 25 years announced that they are divorcing, following claims that he recently cheated on her with a Tory aide. I could go on, but we haven’t got all day.
In many ways, Johnson is – and I don’t mean this as a compliment – the closest thing British politics has to Donald Trump. It’s not just the haystack hair; it’s the ability to withstand serious gaffes and scandals that would reduce most other politicians’ reputations to rubble. Much of this is down to the two men’s mutual entitlement and shamelessness. If you’re immune to criticism and incapable of feeling abashed, it’s remarkably easy to simply barrel through life, doing and saying and taking exactly what you please.
So there are many things that are galling about watching Johnson careen cynically around British politics, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake like a calculating bull in a china shop. But one of the most grating aspects of his political career is the fact that it is impossible – utterly, totally, 100% impossible – to imagine a female politician behaving in a similar way and getting away with it.
Think about it for a moment. Has the UK ever seen a woman politician who was clever and charismatic, but also dogged by claims of racism, ineptitude, laziness, cronyism, dishonesty and arrogance, as Johnson has been for years? Can you envisage a world in which a woman MP made no real attempt to hide her ruthless desire to be prime minister, consistently tried to undermine the country’s leader, and still received glowing support from the UK’s right-wing press? Is it conceivable that the British public would admire a female politician who made a string of gaffes and serious diplomatic missteps, simply because she seemed like ‘a laugh’? No. No, it isn’t.
A woman politician could never behave like Johnson and still be influential and popular, because women in politics are held to a much higher standard of behaviour than men. This theory is supported by plentiful research, and it becomes blindingly obvious when we consider political sex scandals.
Johnson has long been accused of being unfaithful to Marina Wheeler, the woman who is now divorcing him – notably in 2004, when he was sacked from the Tory frontbench for lying about having an affair, and in 2010, when it was alleged that he’d fathered a child with another woman (something he has never denied).
In contrast, there are zero successful women in UK politics with anything remotely close to Johnson’s public record of adultery, and the handful of British women politicians who have been embroiled in sex scandals – such as former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith, or the DUP’s Iris Robinson – have seen their careers ended as a result.
Given that research by Cardiff Metropolitan University has found that women tend to be blamed for affairs whether they’re the ‘other woman’ or the cheating partner, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so few female politicians are prepared to risk their careers for an extramarital fling. They suspect it would be game over.
It’s not just the sex stuff. It’s also the fact that a woman politician would be hauled over the coals for being anywhere close to as inept as Johnson. Despite his undeniable skill at self-promotion, the record of what he has actually achieved in politics is patchy.
As foreign secretary, one of his major responsibilities was to represent the government’s agenda and maintain diplomatic relations with other countries. Yet he frequently seemed duplicitous and self-serving on Brexit, and made several TV and radio appearances where he didn’t seem to have bothered to memorise key points about the government’s policies.
As far as diplomacy went, he demonstrated an uncanny knack for p*ssing off countries around the world – joking about dead bodies in Libya, reciting an offensive colonial-era poem in a Myanmar temple and comparing the French president to a WW2 prisoner of war guard – and made some devastating mistakes.
One of the worst of these was when he incorrectly described Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a London woman currently imprisoned in Iran, as a journalist. That error was seized on by the Iranian authorities as evidence that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was actually a spy, and is widely considered to have drastically hampered her chances of release.
Women politicians make mistakes too. But their personalities are scrutinised and their records held to account in a manner that Johnson somehow escapes. Look at how suspicious people were of Hillary Clinton’s clear ambition and rumoured untrustworthiness, compared to how willing they are to shrug off Johnson’s blatant deceitfulness and lust for power.
Or look at how May is lambasted for her wobbly approach to Brexit, despite the fact that she at least has a plan (which is more than can be said for Johnson). Or how Diane Abbott was savaged for two “car crash” interviews last year, whereas Johnson frequently bluffs his way through media appearances by disguising his lack of knowledge with witty asides and florid phrases. The double standard, when you examine it closely, is jaw-dropping.
None of this is to suggest that women politicians should be let off the hook if they did act like Boris Johnson. His behaviour is frequently reprehensible, and regularly falls far below the standard we should expect from the country’s elected leaders.
But it is a reminder that when it comes to politics, men and women are still playing by different rules. And when men like Johnson get away with disregarding the rulebook entirely, something needs to change.
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