Spending less time with the family
PUBLISHED: 09:14 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 09:14 11 September 2018
As Boris Johnson and his wife seek a divorce, Lynne Mortimer wonders if the electorate is too bothered about the private lives of politicians.
Boris Johnson is something of a recurring theme, being so often in the news and for so many different reasons.
He may not be everyone’s cup of tea or, for our French cousins, tasse du thé, however you can’t help reflecting, as he and his wife Marina Wheeler have announced they will be divorcing, that, in general, the workings of parliament are not conducive to family life. The demands of constituency, party and Parliament can be overwhelming.
While Mr Johnson continues to grab headlines with his Trumpist approach to taxation and Brexit bullishness, looking beyond the rhetoric there is also a husband, father and − if we are to believe the tabloids − an adulterer.
Boris Johnson’s marriage to Marina Wheeler survived years of turbulence. The couple married in 1993, when Mr Johnson, who was previously married to socialite Allegra Mostyn-Owen was working as a journalist. In 2004 the tabloids broke the news of an alleged affair Mr Johnson was said to have been conducting with newspaper columnist Petronella Wyatt since 2000.
He shrugged off accusations put to him by The Mail On Sunday as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. But it would take more than nifty alliteration get him out of hot water. Ms Wyatt’s mother Lady Verushka Wyatt contradicted the Boris Johnson, by now a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It was his denials of the infidelity, rather than the affair itself, that caused his shadow cabinet career to come unstuck. Tory leader Michael Howard took a dim view of Mr Johnson’s behaviour and axed him from the shadow cabinet.
In 2006 there were tabloid claims of another affair, this time it was alleged the married father-of-four had been involved with a journalist working on the Times Higher Education Supplement. On this occasion, leader of the Opposition David Cameron said it was a private matter and Mr Johnson retained his job as education spokesman.
Through it all, Ms Wheeler stuck by her husband, joining him routinely for public occasions when he was Mayor of London and later Foreign Secretary.
Now we learn, in a joint personal statement issued to the Press Association through a family friend, that the couple’s separation occurred “several months ago”.
It is not surprising that the weirdness of political life can sound the death knell for MPs’ marriages and there are also numerous instances of wives standing by errant husbands. One imagines this is because they are extraordinary, able women who have helped their husbands careers and have some appreciation of how the pressures of a political career can impact on family life. “Power”, alleged Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations in the US, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Moreover, when MPs’ working hours stretch long into the night they often spend more time with colleagues than family. Many are forced to stay over in the capital because their constituency homes, an often their families, are so far away. It is no justification for cheating but it is, perhaps, part of a weak explanation as to how extra-marital affairs might be sparked.
In 1992, David Mellor, Conservative Party heritage minister (MP for Putney - not that far away), had an affair with an actress. It was alleged he had romped in his beloved Chelsea football kit. Mellor then activated the cringe factor by posing for photos with his family. Mellor resigned, later left his wife and is now a presenter on Classic FM. He has been with his current partner for 20 years.
In 2006 news broke that Labour’s Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott (MP for Hull East) had engaged in a two-year affair with his appointments secretary, Tracey Temple, between 2002 and 2004. His marriage and political career survived and he is now a peer of the realm.
There are MPs who have resigned cabinet posts in order “to spend more time with their family”. It was Norman Fowler, a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, who may be able to claim ownership of that well-used phrase, having cited it as a reason for his resignation from the front bench in 1990. In 1997 he returned to the Conservative front bench.
Being a Member of Parliament is an all-consuming job which can ride rough-shod over family life. But will Boris Johnson’s leadership potential be damaged by revelations about his personal life? Probably not.