Female voters are turning their backs on Boris – so I came up with three ways he could show he cares about women.
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump share many similarities. The blonde hair. A penchant for painting themselves as Men of the People, despite their gilded lives. The flip-flopping on significant policies (Trump on abortion, Johnson on – well, lots of things). In recent days, though, the spotlight has swung onto another key similarity between the two men: their shared ‘women problem’.
Both Trump and Johnson are currently experiencing dips in support from female voters in their respective countries. Some 62% of American women say they would not vote for Trump at the 2020 presidential election, according to a major recent survey. Just 38% of respondents said they were likely to back the current US leader, indicating that he may have lost support from women during his presidency (41% of female voters – including around 47% of white women voters – voted for Trump in 2016).
In the UK, meanwhile, women appear to be significantly more suspicious of Johnson than men. According to the results of a YouGov poll published on 27 September, 47% of female voters in Britain think Johnson is “dislikeable”, up seven points since the end of August (and five points higher than among men).
More than half (51%) of women said Johnson was incompetent – up nine points since August – and just 19% of women believed him to be honest, compared to a quarter of men. Women were also much less likely than men to think Johnson was the best person to lead the country: just 35% of female voters considered him their top choice for prime minister, compared to 44% of men.
Why are women increasingly turning against Johnson? The YouGov poll gives some brutal surface-level answers: he’s seen as insincere, unpleasant, bungling. But those simple opinions are based on more complicated events. In the last few weeks, several key moments have helped solidify Johnson’s pre-existing image as a man whose attitude and behaviour towards women leaves much to be desired.
First, his government allowed the domestic abuse bill to be dropped as a direct result of prorogation. Following a backlash, Johnson promised to reintroduce the bill in the Queen’s Speech – but it didn’t look good that he’d allowed it to be scrapped in the first place. (The bill is now back in place thanks to the Supreme Court’s effective cancellation of prorogation.)
Next, Johnson appeared to sneer at the Labour MP Paula Sherriff, who had appealed to him in the House of Commons to stop using inflammatory language such as “surrender”, “traitor” and “betrayal” out of concern for MPs’ safety. Johnson later expressed lukewarm regret that he’d dismissed Sherriff’s fears as “humbug”, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he was “sorry for the misunderstanding”.
But this equivocal apology may not be enough to rinse away the sour taste left by his original retort – especially given that female MPs experience a disproportionate amount of abuse compared to their male counterparts. Neither the Commons row, nor the confusion over the domestic abuse bill, gave the impression of a man who cares deeply and sincerely about women’s safety.
Then there’s the not insignificant matter of what health secretary Matt Hancock has politely termed Johnson’s “private life”. (Actually, what Hancock said was that the prime minister “has never lectured other people about their private lives” – to which the only sensible response seems to be: “Well, men in glass houses…”) On 29 September, The Sunday Times published a column by Charlotte Edwardes in which the journalist accused Johnson of groping her thigh at a private lunch in 1999.
“I’m seated on Johnson’s right; on his left is a young woman I know… Under the table I feel Johnson’s hand on my thigh,” Edwardes wrote. “He gives it a squeeze. His hand is high up my leg and he has enough inner flesh beneath his fingers to make me sit suddenly upright.” She said she confided in the other woman after the lunch, who replied: “Oh God, he did exactly the same to me.”
Downing Street has denied Edwardes’ claims, calling them “untrue”, and Johnson himself said “no” when asked by Sky News if he did or did not “touch the thigh of a woman without her permission”. But on Twitter, Edwardes responded that “if the prime minister doesn’t recollect the incident then clearly I have a better memory than he does”. It remains to be seen if the allegation will seriously damage Johnson’s standing with women voters, but it seems reasonable to assume the effect will not be a net positive.
Staying true to the whole Trump-y vibe, this isn’t even the only sleazy scandal brewing for Johnson. The story about his relationship with American tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri continues to snowball: on the same day it published Edwardes’ column, The Sunday Times reported that Arcuri told four friends she and Johnson were having an affair while he was London mayor. During this period, she was awarded a £15,000 grant and attended three overseas trade missions led by Johnson – although the PM denies any impropriety and says there “was no interest to declare” in relation to his interactions with the businesswoman.
People have different opinions on whether politicians’ private lives have anything to do with their professional roles: the French are famously laissez-faire on this issue, while Americans have historically been more puritanical. But as with the Stormy Daniels scandal that engulfed Trump in 2018, the issue here is not whether or not Johnson had an affair. (As with Trump, I think you’d struggle to find anyone who was particularly shocked by that allegation: both men were known to have cheated on their wives long before they took office.)
Instead, as with Trump and Daniels, the problem stems from whether Johnson broke the law as a result of his dealings with Arcuri. The scandal is now the subject of four official investigations – and just like his friend in the White House, Johnson may yet learn that allegations of sexual harassment and affairs do not endear him to women voters.
Women are not a homogenous bloc. There are women who will back Johnson to the end, because they believe sincerely in his economic policies and his promise to deliver Brexit. That’s their right. There are also women who could never be won over by the prime minister, because they feel he has already behaved unforgivably in too many ways to count. Both sides are entitled to their viewpoints – and they’ll be able to make their feelings known at the next general election, whenever that may be.
Until that day, though – and quite feasibly after it – Johnson is our prime minister. And wouldn’t it be nice if most women in the UK could look at their country’s leader and see someone they genuinely believed had their best interests at heart? Someone they liked and trusted, as opposed to the situation we’re in now?
With that in mind, here are three suggestions for how Johnson might improve his standing with women voters (ignoring Brexit, because if I knew how to fix that, I wouldn’t be working at a magazine). Who knows – he might just listen.
1. Stop using inflammatory language – and apologise for things he’s said in the past
Johnson has never been afraid of provocative language: this is the man, after all, who compared Muslim women to “letterboxes”, after which the UK saw a surge in Islamophobic attacks. But he has amped up his populist rhetoric even more in recent months, a tactic that prompted the confrontation with Paula Sherriff (whose friend Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right activist shortly before the EU referendum).
Female MPs, particularly women of colour, are disproportionately targeted for abuse by far-right groups online, and many women politicians have spoken out about threats made against them and their families. Labour MP Rushanara Ali has accused Johnson of “deliberately causing chaos and putting people’s lives at risk”, while former Conservative work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd has said he is “inciting violence” with his aggressive language.
Johnson has since expressed his “support for anyone facing threats, especially female MPs”. But he should tone down his speeches, apologise for past statements and keep making clear that he does not condone the verbal, physical or online abuse of people with opposing beliefs – to show he takes the safety of both women MPs and ordinary citizens seriously.
2. Get the domestic abuse bill passed
The bill has been in the works for almost three years, and contains measures – such as banning alleged domestic abuse perpetrators from cross-examining survivors in family courts – that would transform the lives of many women in England and Wales. However, it is not a perfect piece of legislation.
Imagine if Johnson prioritised getting the domestic abuse bill through parliament as a matter of urgency, and made some of the changes that have been requested by campaigners in the field, such as committing to providing long-term, sustainable funding for women’s refuges. Wouldn’t that be something?
3. Be transparent about how he has treated women in the past
In recent years, we’ve learned that voting publics can be extremely forgiving of prominent male figures’ imperfections and indiscretions – not to mention allegations of sexual harassment.
What makes Johnson seem untrustworthy isn’t necessarily the allegations of multiple affairs, although that certainly doesn’t help (and if you’d rather have a prime minister who seemed to respect the women in his personal life, that’s fair enough). Instead, it’s the slipperiness, the dissembling, the distracting jokes; the fact he won’t even confirm how many children he has; that he won’t discuss Edwardes’ claim of sexual harassment save for denying it, instead pivoting instantly to Brexit talking points.
If Johnson owned up to his past poor behaviour, apologised and promised that he now conducted himself more ethically, that still wouldn’t be enough to win over many women. But it would be enough to convince some people – and it would at least counter the impression that the country is being run by a rogue pulling a fast one.
As it is, we’re left to wonder: what on earth will we find out next?
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