How Boris Johnson has Spread and Benefitted From Deeply Sexist Attitudes in Politics
The Prime Minister has pushed sexist tropes about women – while being given a free pass by those parts of the press which also trade in them, reports Adam Bienkov
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“There can be absolutely no place” for misogyny in politics, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons earlier this week, following the publication of a sexist story about Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner.
He later described the claims, which had been briefed by Conservative MPs to the Mail on Sunday, as “the most appalling load of sexist, misogynist tripe”.
However, the Prime Minister’s sudden opposition to misogyny in politics will surprise anyone who has closely followed his career.
In fact, far from opposing sexism in politics, Johnson has been one of its chief proponents.
As both a politician and a journalist, the Prime Minister has a long record of deeply sexist comments and actions.
In 1996, Boris Johnson wrote a bizarre article for the Telegraph in which he reviewed the quality of “the hot totty” he had observed at the Labour Party Conference.
“The unanimous opinion is that what has been called the ‘Tottymeter’ reading is higher than at any Labour Party Conference in living memory,” he told his readers. “Time and again the ‘Tottymeter’ has gone off as a young woman delegate mounts the rostrum.”
He suggested that such “totty” was attracted to the Labour Party because of the “fickleness” of their sex.
“The real reason why Blackpool is buzzing with glamorous women is surely that they scent victory,” he wrote. “It is not the great smell of Brut that makes John Prescott attractive. It is the whiff of power. With the fickleness of their sex, they are following the polls.”
Johnson also brought his admiration for “hot totty” into his own workplace, once writing for the Telegraph about the time he pinned a calendar of naked women to his desk, despite complaints from female colleagues. He boasted that the calendar “caused something of a stir” due to the fact that the pictures “made women feel embarrassed”.
Johnson’s other writing often betrayed a deeply sexist view of women, according to his biographer Sonia Purnell.
In her book, Just Boris, she notes that throughout his writing women were “portrayed as rather feeble ‘blubbing blondes’ or ‘collapsing with emotion”.
His writing was often deeply sexualised. As his other biographer Andrew Gimson noted: “Boris’s writing is suffused with sexual imagery. He sees sex almost everywhere.”
This is particularly notable in his GQ columns, in which he reviewed his favourite “babe magnet” cars.
As Purnell notes: “The reviews relied on words such as ‘filly’, ‘chicks’ and ‘flapping kimonos’ and were garnished with plenty of ‘gearstick’ gags… There is talk of blonde drivers ‘waggling their rumps,’ his own superior horsepower ‘taking them from behind,’ aided by tantalising thoughts of the imaginary ‘ample bosoms’ of the female sat nav voice.
“On driving a Ferrari F340, he wrote: ‘it was as though the whole county of Hampshire was lying back and opening her well-bred legs to be ravished by the Italian stallion’.”
Such attitudes spilled over into his political career.
In 2005, while campaigning to become the Conservative MP for Henley, he told voters that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”.
And in 2012, while hosting the London Olympics as Mayor, Johnson told his readers of the “magnificent” experience of watching “semi-naked women playing beach volleyball… glistening like wet otters”.
When hosting the World Islamic Forum in London, he suggested that women in Malaysia only went to university “to find men to marry”.
Johnson was Accused of Assaulting Women
These attitudes towards women allegedly sometimes spilled out into his own behaviour.
In 2019, The Sunday Times journalist Charlotte Edwardes alleged that Boris Johnson once groped her and another woman during a lunch hosted by the Spectator magazine, of which he was then editor.
Johnson’s spokesman dismissed the claims. However, his former colleague and friend Toby Young defended Johnson’s alleged actions, saying that “at the Spectator, in those raucous days, people complained if Boris didn’t put his hand on their knee”.
Indeed, Johnson has previously been open about such behaviour. In a farewell piece in the Spectator marking his exit as editor, Johnson offered the following advice to his successor: “Once the fire is going well, you may find your eyes drifting to the lovely striped chesterfield across the room. Is it the right size, you wonder, for a snooze… You come round in a panic, to find a lustrous pair of black eyes staring down at you. Relax. It’s only Kimberly [Quinn, who was then the Spectator‘s publisher] with some helpful suggestions for boosting circulation.”
He advised his successor to “just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way”.
Johnson Talks to Women ‘Like They’re Idiots’
The Prime Minister’s claimed outrage over the Rayner story has not been believed by everyone who knows the Prime Minister.
One of his former close colleagues told Byline Times that they were unconvinced by Downing Street’s denials about the story.
“I’m convinced that the Rayner story will have come from him, or his allies,” they said. “It just sounds exactly like the sort of thing he would say.”
Downing Street has strongly denied this. However, the Mail on Sunday’s central claim, that Johnson was distracted by Rayner’s legs in the chamber, is not surprising to some of his former colleagues.
In a piece written last year, Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings wrote that “as one woman who knows Boris extremely well and has worked very closely with him said to me last year, ‘he can’t take women seriously, he can’t help staring at tits and talking like we’re idiots’”.
This attitude was noticed by female members of the London Assembly while he was Mayor.
In 2012, a cross-party group of female politicians wrote a letter to Johnson accusing him of being “disrespectful and patronising” towards them in the chamber. In his reply, Johnson dismissed the claims, saying that “I have not been more robust towards female rather than male assembly members and I do not believe I have been remotely sexist”.
However, such allegations have continued to dog him. Despite appointing a handful of women, like Priti Patel and Liz Truss to senior positions in his Government, his Cabinet still remains overwhelmingly filled by men.
One of his last remaining senior female advisors, Munira Mirza, walked out of the Government last year. His former press secretary Allegra Stratton also stood down, with Johnson saying that he was furious about footage of her joking about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.
Allies of his predecessor Theresa May suggest that she also remains unhappy with Johnson’s treatment of her. When a story about May wearing leather trousers was splashed across newspaper front pages in 2016, Johnson joined in with the barbs against his leader, joking that “our wonderful PM actually wears lederhosen”.
The former Conservative Home Secretary Amber Rudd later said there had been a “whiff of sexism” about how May had been ousted by Johnson’s supporters.
Sexist Media Attitudes Give Johnson A Pass
Whatever the source of the Angela Rayner story, it is undoubtedly the case that Johnson has been treated very differently by the press than if he were a woman.
Imagine for a moment that another prominent politician, who happened to be a woman, was found to have had multiple affairs with other men while married.
Imagine that this same politician secretly had children with these other men, and then refused to ever publicly state how many children she had.
Imagine also that the identity of one of these children was later uncovered in a court case, due to lawyers arguing that revealing it was important to highlighting their “reckless” behaviour.
Imagine that one of these men was also found to have benefited from public money provided to them following the start of their relationship with that woman.
Imagine again that, after all of this became public knowledge, this female politician then left her husband, who was ill at the time, for a man who was 24 years her junior.
It is impossible to imagine that these stories would have then been shaken off by certain newspapers which then championed her to become leader of their party, and prime minister.
Now compare this scenario to how Angela Rayner has been treated for the crime of being a working class woman who occasionally wears a skirt.
Because the truth is that Boris Johnson is not only a purveyor of deeply sexist attitudes in politics – he is also one of the leading beneficiaries of them too.