Sunday, November 14, 2004

Affairs of state

Yesterday Michael Howard took the extraordinary step of sacking Boris Johnson from the Conservative front bench. On one level, the reasoning sounds consistent and reasonable - Howard did not think Johnson was telling the truth, and given the amount of time that Howard has spent proclaiming that people do not trust politicians because of their mendacity, it seems a reasonable position to take. However, I would be amazed if Howard's decision does not backfire dramatically.

Not least among my reasons for this is because Boris has a reputation for saying what he thinks. Whilst many people were offended by the Spectator's printing of an article highly critical of Liverpool in the aftermath of the execution of Ken Bigley, they at least recognised that he had the right to print it, and were, I think, respectful of an editor who was willing to publish challenging and unpopular points of view. Furthermore, they were respectful of the fact Boris took full responsibility for the article published in his journal.

The last paragraph contains another clue as to why the sacking was such a bad idea. The fact that Johnson is known by his first name, rather than by his second, demonstrates just how popular he is. Indeed, he is most probably the most popular politician in the country. His "bumbling idiot" persona - although somewhat contrived and to a large extent a ruse - has led to him being considered the coolest politician in the country. And anyone who saw his first appearance as a guest presenter on Have I Got News For You must at least have great respect for him, even if they don't like him. His comments after that appearance go a long way to summing up why he was so popular - to paraphrase, he said that unless politicians appear on shows like that, even if they know they are going to be ridiculed, then they have no chance of actually striking a chord with those currently disengaged with politics.

On those grounds alone, then, it was a risky decision for Howard to take. The actual affair over which he was accused of lying was an extra-marital one. My gut reaction is that sacking Boris over a matter such as this, when it is so clearly non-political, will reconfirm in many eyes the perception of the Tory party as the "nasty party". Yet again, the Tories are making the headlines for non-political reasons whilst offering seemingly no sensible alternative to Labour.

But I think my opposition to the sacking goes further than this. Why the hell is it anyone's business who Boris Johnson is sleeping with? If we are worried about his ability to serve his country properly, it is far more worrying that he is continuing to edit the Spectator at the same time as he was supposed to be representing his constituents in Henley-on-Thames, and while (until yesterday) we was supposed to be opposing the brief of Culture and the Arts. Is anyone seriously suggesting that Boris's libido was affecting his political performance more than his doubling up of duties?

One of the things we should realise in this day and age is that the public and private spheres should be kept separate. It is none of our business who Boris Johnson is sleeping with, unless this actually starts to become detrimental to his ability to do his job - something no-one has suggested in all the media furore this has caused. Why do we hold our politicians to higher standards of personal morality than ourselves? One of the things that the Tories claim to stand for is smaller government; to give people more control over what they do with their lives. Their leader's decision this week stands in stark contrast to that. If the state should keep out of regulating what goes on in the bedroom, then we should stop our fascination with what our public figures get up to in their own time. The only affairs by which we should judge our politicians are the affairs of state.