After police were called to a row at Boris Johnson’s partner’s flat, his supporters have rushed to paint the issue as a left-wing conspiracy. It’s a dangerous idea – and one we shouldn’t buy into.
There is very little grey space in politics in 2019. Sincerely held opinions are now routinely sneered at as cynical opportunism; longstanding views dismissed as nothing more than the desire to undermine someone’s ‘cause’. Have concerns about Jeremy Corbyn’s wooliness on Brexit? You’re obviously a neoliberal Blairite who cares more about maintaining the status quo than ending austerity. Think Boris Johnson has demonstrated, time and time again, that he’s unfit to be prime minister? You’re clearly a Remoaner snowflake who’d like nothing more to thwart the will of the people. We live in a world of black and white.
Yet something strange is happening. As political loyalties become more polarised, issues concerning women’s safety – issues that you might assume were black and white – are being abruptly shunted back into the grey.
Less than a week ago, Conservative MPs including Johnny Mercer, Peter Bottomley and Nadine Dorries defended their parliamentary colleague Mark Field after he seized a female Greenpeace activist by the neck and slammed her into a pillar. Now, Boris Johnson’s most ardent supporters are passionately insisting that it is of no concern to anyone that police were called to his girlfriend’s flat after a neighbour reported a domestic disturbance.
Seemingly indisputable points – like, for example, the idea that MPs shouldn’t grab unarmed protesters by the throat and pin them against walls, or that you should call the police if you’re concerned for a neighbour’s safety – are now being framed as ambiguous issues, worthy of fierce debate.
For those who haven’t already got a handle on the Johnson situation, let’s backtrack. In the early hours of Friday 21 June, people who live on the same south London street as Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds became concerned. Her neighbour Tom Penn heard a blazing row from her flat when he went onto the street to collect a takeaway, one so “loud and angry” he “felt frightened and concerned for the welfare of those involved”. At least two other neighbours said they heard screaming, shouting and glasses or plates being smashed. One neighbour, Earl McDermott, has been reported as saying that he “thought someone was being murdered”.
Penn returned to his flat and recorded some of the noise on his phone. On the recording, heard by The Guardian but not by Stylist, Symonds allegedly tells Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. After hearing “a loud scream and banging, followed by silence”, Penn said he and his wife Eve Leigh knocked on Symonds’ front door three times. When they got no response, he called 999.
In a statement to the BBC, the Metropolitan Police said that officers spoke to all occupants of Symonds’ address following Penn’s call and found them “safe and well”, adding that there was no cause for further action. But let’s get something clear: Penn did exactly the right thing in contacting the police.
For generations, domestic abuse was widely seen as a private issue; something for couples to sort out between themselves. Informed, compassionate people now know that’s not true, but too many victims continue to suffer in silence.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that in the year ending March 2018, 2 million adults – 1.3 million women and 695,000 men – aged between 16 and 59 experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales. But the ONS also says that the majority of domestic abuse cases are never brought to police attention. A 2018 report by Women’s Aid found that just 28% of women using community-based domestic violence services had reported the abuse to police. Fewer than half of women using refuges had done the same.
Because survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence are often very adept at disguising abuse from their family, friends and colleagues, neighbours who hear what’s going on are sometimes the only people willing or able to alert the police. Women’s Aid actively recommends calling 999 if you hear fighting from a neighbour’s house and think someone could be in danger. To suggest otherwise is dangerously regressive.
Yet in the days since Penn reported the disturbance at Symonds’ flat to police, he and his wife have seen their motives torn apart by pro-Boris politicians and journalists. Some of this happened before their personal politics were even known. Almost 24 hours before Penn identified himself publicly, The Telegraph’s columnist Allison Pearson was denouncing “the #Boris neighbours” as “creepy, sneaky [and] politically motivated” and retweeting claims of a “pathetic set-up”.
Pearson has since minimised the row as a “lover’s tiff” and accused Penn and Leigh of “[wasting] police time to add ballast to their story”. The Conservative MP James Cleverly has also implied that Penn and Leigh were wrong to call 999, tweeting: “The big element in the Boris story isn’t that there was a heated argument, it’s that the police were called.” Any suggestion that the neighbours could have been genuinely concerned is waved away. Their actions are framed as motivated solely by political antipathy.
But while some of Johnson’s supporters have criticised Penn and Leigh for contacting the police at all, many more have condemned them for taking the recording of the row to the media – particularly The Guardian, which is not known for its love of Johnson. In one typical comment, Richard Barnes – Johnson’s deputy during his time as mayor of London – said on Newsnight: “I question the motives of the neighbours who stood there with a microphone pressed against the wall recording somebody’s row… so concerned were they, they went to The Guardian.”
Even Jeremy Hunt, now Johnson’s only rival in the race to be prime minister, has said that “what happens in people’s personal lives is really a matter for them”. In this worldview, the row at Symonds’ flat has no bearing on the public, nor on Johnson’s suitability to lead the country. Anyone suggesting otherwise must be a liberal Remainer, driven only by hatred for “Boris” and everything he stands for. Any criticisms or questions we have for the man likely to be our next prime minister are irrelevant.
How sad it is to realise that expressing concern for women’s safety – whether that woman is a politician’s partner or a peaceful protester – has now become a issue of left vs right. How deeply depressing it is that we can’t wonder at the leadership credentials of someone who reportedly becomes involved in bloodcurdling, crockery-smashing rows, without being implicated in some vast liberal conspiracy.
It feels like we’re entering into a British version of Trumpworld, where anyone who criticises the US president is swallowing “fake news” or participating in a “witch hunt”. Incidentally, last week the writer E Jean Carroll said that Trump had sexually assaulted her in the Nineties. With upsetting predictability, the vast majority of right-wing pundits in the US have either denounced her claims as a partisan attack or simply ignored them.
As Sky News presenter Niall Paterson has pointed out, information doesn’t automatically become un-newsworthy if the person supplying it has less-than-pure motives. But it is possible to have genuine concerns about a politician’s character and behaviour without being motivated by a frenzied, partisan desire to destroy them. I’m no fan of Johnson or the Conservatives: in the nine years I’ve been eligible to vote, I’ve cast my ballot for Labour, the Green Party and the Lib Dems. But I would have serious questions for the leader of any of party were they involved in an incident like the one at Symonds’ flat.
Because for better or worse, we live in a country where we expect our political leaders to display reasonably good character in their personal as well as public lives. That doesn’t mean they have to be saints, but – call me crazy, call me old-fashioned! – I’d like to believe that the person leading the country was essentially a decent human being. I’d like to think the prime minister was fundamentally honest and empathetic and serious-minded and responsible; someone I’d trust with a task at least as important as, say, picking up my grandma from the hospital.
Throughout his career, Boris Johnson has shown little evidence of being honest or empathetic or serious-minded or responsible. He wastes money. He makes devastating gaffes, racist, homophobic slurs and sexist jokes. He has a legendary history of simply making things up. I would not trust him to so much as water my plants while I was on holiday. And a row so loud that it makes one neighbour say they “thought someone was being murdered” does not add to an impression of a man of good moral fibre.
Penn and Leigh were right to call the police. They were entitled to go to the press. The country is allowed to have questions for Johnson. Concern for women’s safety should not framed as a partisan issue. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty black and white.
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