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Monday, November 15, 2004

Keep it up, Boris

I have so far refrained from commenting on the Boris Johnson affair as frankly, his personal life has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with Michael Howard either, which could explain why Boris refused to confirm the rumours to him.

The Guardian has it about right:

As for his sex life, it is a fact, however regrettable, that not all statesmen, actual or prospective, lead virtuous private lives, lives that are not our business. Mr Howard has chosen to make an issue of it by asking questions that were best left unasked when the prurient tabloid pack decided to savage Boris as an MP, not indulge him as an editor. Mr Johnson appears to have misled his leader by omission as John Profumo did Harold Macmillan in an earlier, more tragic case of phoney moralising. It reinforces doubts about Mr Howard's tactical judgement. He would have been smarter to stick with last week's line: Keep it up, Boris.

What has prompted me to post this however was a question posed on Radio Wales this morning. "Do you have to be boring to succeed in politics?" they asked. I certainly hope not! Yet politics is full of colourful characters whose careers have ended in disgrace. Ron Davies and Jeffery Archer to name but two, are modern politicians whose private behaviour has led them to resignation. Ironically, the greyest of the grey, John Major, survived as a worthy but dull Prime Minister only for us to find out later that he had been entertaining the irrepressible Edwina Curry behind closed doors for more years than we care to think about.

I do not know what lessons to learn from this except that I suspect that in most instances it is the media, not the voters, who determine the fate of such politicians. They want them to be human, but not too human. The quickest and harshest judge is a journalist after a good story, not the voter seeking a well-funded health service. This is evident by those politicians who have stood up to the press, retained the support of their parties and have gone on to prosper, even to seem more interesting, following scandal. Paddy Ashdown, Cecil Parkinson, Robin Cook, Steve Norris are such men.

One trend I have commented on before is the increased personalisation of politics. In a media age, in which everybody knows everything within minutes of it becoming public knowledge, the political process has become more soap opera and less debate. Political parties are adopting American tactics and focussing in on the perceived personal weaknesses of candidates rather then the policies they propose. We even have a valid debate about whether we should have gone to war in Iraq being turned into a personal crusade against the Prime Minister through the very American device of impeachment.

Entertaining as all this is I suspect that it is also turning people off politics and leading to lower participation rates in elections. Electors want to be treated with respect. They are adults who know that their politicians are fallible. Their vote however, will, by-and-large, be influenced not by private behaviour but by policies and results. Bill Clinton was the embodiment of that principle. Despite all that he did, he remained popular and if he could have run, would have won a third term. He, more than any other politician, is the proof that you do not have to be boring to succeed.

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