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LONDON — Even after being accused of sexual assault on a drunken night out, it’s hard to get in trouble with Boris Johnson.
Despite lurid groping allegations against senior MP Chris Pincher after a booze-fueled evening in a private Westminster club, the prime minister spent almost 24 hours battling to keep his ally in the Conservative Party.
Pincher did quit his powerful job as deputy chief whip — second in command in the team tasked, somewhat ironically, with keeping Conservative MPs in line — but there was a full day of pressure before Johnson bowed to the inevitable and suspended Pincher’s party affiliation, pending an inquiry.
This lack of decisive action came as no surprise in Westminster, where Johnson’s reluctance to wield the knife against offending colleagues is legendary.
Those who know him say he likes to protect his allies; is squeamish about confrontation; and— crucially — has little compunction for standards himself.
“We’re meant to be the party of law and order and the party that protects victims, but now we seem to be the party that promotes predators,” complained one backbench Conservative MP. “The protection you get as a minister now is so much more than any other British person.”
The examples of Johnson’s leniency stretch back almost to the day he entered No. 10. The prime minister refused to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel after she was found to have bullied civil servants; tried to keep Health Secretary Matt Hancock in the Cabinet after he broke COVID rules by conducting an extramarital affair in his government office; and didn’t flinch when Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick was found to have broken the law when he approved a Conservative donor’s bid to build a lucrative housing estate.
In one memorable case, Johnson fought to keep his then-top political adviser Dominic Cummings after an infamous lockdown jaunt to a medieval castle to test — he claimed — whether his vision was good enough to drive.
On that occasion — as with most of the others — Johnson’s loyalty caused him enormous political damage, for little obvious gain. Cummings departed under a cloud, eight months later.
Conduct vs comrades
Johnson’s allies insist the PM was reluctant to dump Pincher because he wanted to see due process followed, and argues people should be innocent until proved otherwise.
“Often we hear that Boris Johnson will throw anyone under a bus to advance his own career or save his own skin,” one Cabinet minister said. “But when there are people in trouble and a proper process has to be followed, he does not rush to judgment.”
The same person added: “You can’t have a kangaroo court and give people sanctions or punishments before the facts are known.”
It doesn’t help the prime minister, however, that allegations about Pincher have circulated in Westminster for some time. The MP was investigated over another assault allegation in 2017, although cleared.
When Pincher was offered the deputy chief whip job earlier this year, Cabinet Office Minister Steven Barclay raised concerns over more recent allegations against him and triggered a review from a government ethics panel, delaying the appointment for several hours. But the allegations could not be substantiated, so the panel gave a green light to the appointment.
Some contrasted the Pincher affair with the case of Tory MP Neil Parish, who was swiftly stripped of the whip and then quit as an MP after he admitted watching porn in the House of Commons.
Pincher was an arch-loyalist, having been heavily involved in a shadow support operation that kept Johnson in post as he battled to keep his job over the Partygate scandal. Parish, by contrast, was no Johnsonite.
“The message we’re sending out here is we’ll protect [serious transgressors] if they are loyal, but if you inadvertently look at a bit of porn and you’re not loyal you’re gone,” said one MP.
One former Cabinet minister suggested that what might look like loyalty from Johnson is in fact something much more sordid. “It’s the transactional basis on which he runs everything,” they said. “It’s establishing a mafia, or a coterie, or a tribe whose principal aim is to share the spoils.”
Some Johnson critics see the Pincher incident not as an act of loyalty, but of the PM looking to protect himself from attack.
“He doesn’t do loyalty; that’s not him,” said Sonia Purnell, Johnson’s biographer and former colleague. “He doesn’t believe in rules applying to him so it’s therefore extremely difficult if not impossible to enforce them against a close colleague.”
The sense Johnson is a rule-breaker has followed him around throughout his career. He has felt the wrath of standards watchdogs numerous times, for example over Conservative donations to refurbish his flat; a gifted retreat on a private Caribbean island; and over the lockdown parties, for which he was slapped with a police fine.
His approach to standards in public life have won him a reputation for running a rogue administration. “There is more rigorous checking of the fire alarm system in No. 10 than there is of anything else,” said one government official.
Johnson also has a reputation for avoiding confrontation, which could explain his insistence on sticking with wrongdoers.
He is famed for an inability to say “no” to people. On one occasion in 2008, he promised to fire a member of his team who was causing problems, only for the staffer to emerge from the meeting with a new job title and higher salary, according to an official who worked in his office at the time.
“He likes throwing his weight around but he doesn’t like people who stand up to him,” said the former Cabinet minister quoted above. “Look at his Cabinet for fuck’s sake. He’s not appointed anyone who might be a challenge to him.”
Purnell, the biographer, agreed. “He really doesn’t like confrontation,” she said. “He’d rather evade, or avoid or duck or weave.” The explanation, she said, was simple. “If you confront someone there’s always the possibility that they will come back at you with something stronger so he’d rather avoid that altogether,” she said.