Britain’s dismal choice
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn make this election a hold-your-nose-and-vote contest
When the best that Britain can offer for prime minister is a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, you know that the country has entered a new dark leaderless age. Judging by the open contempt shown to both men by the ITV audience for last week’s Corbyn-Johnson debate, they thought so too.
Neither contender commands the kind of prime ministerial gravitas that my generation has become accustomed to. Both seem bereft of the core ethical virtues and strength of character the highest office of state ideally demands.
Corbyn’s long embrace of ideologies and extremists who positively disdain the West make him an unlikely leader to smooth Britain into its post Brexit role, confident about its new place in the world; and while Johnson has intelligence, charm and affection for British history (a pre-requisite for the premiership, surely?) he’s never been one to play by the rules, his louche grip on facts and respect for truth even more tenuous than Corbyn’s.
How can I say such things when I’ve spent little face time with Corbyn himself and none with Johnson?
The answer is that I’ve spent a lot of time this year with people who have: first in July for BBC Panorama, when I spoke privately with several senior Labour party staffers who’ve worked with Corbyn and his leadership team, and also with seven staffers in the party’s Legal and Compliance Unit who publicly blew the whistle on Labour’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism.
And then last Sunday for ITV’s Exposure documentary series after many hours of conversation with Johnson’s lover while he was London Mayor, the American entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri. While Johnson slept with her, he was simultaneously boosting ticket sales of her Tech conference events by being guest speaker at them, but not declaring the relationship in alleged contravention of the Greater London Authority’s Code of Conduct, having vowed to end cronyism when he beat Ken Livingstone in 2008.
But first Corbyn.
Testimony from the Labour party whistleblowers illuminated from the inside the failure of Corbyn’s leadership to grip anti-Semitism, or to acknowledge that his arrival as Labour leader had put down a welcome mat for hard-left anti-Semites, or even to interrogate why.
In response to the programme, Labour erupted into a lengthy Catherine Tate style “how very dare you” peroration against the BBC. Why, they asked, had the BBC had not investigated Islamophobia in the Conservative party (a legitimate but entirely separate issue)? Why had I referred to Corbyn as coming “from the ‘radical left’, rather than (just) the Labour left” without giving him a right of reply on that point? Why had I not put it to the whistleblowers that emails sent to Corbyn’s office about specific anti-Semitism cases might have been deliberately “generated” by them as part of an elaborate plot to smear the leadership that they were interfering in such cases?
In Labour’s attempt to demonstrate Corbyn’s commitment to combating anti-Semitism since 1977, they cited 13 Early Day Motions (EDMs) signed by him, 10 tweets and 1 demo. Any suggestion that Corbyn had been less than a lifelong campaigner against anti-Semitism was an affront.
Corbyn was true to his word — that is, when anti-Semitism came dressed in a German uniform, or a skinhead in a pair of Doc Martens
Certainly, this tally was evidence of Corbyn’s commitment to fighting “classic” anti-Semitism – that is, physical attacks by the far right and terrorists on synagogues and Jews and the rise of the far right in Hungary, Poland and America. So, yes, Corbyn was true to his word — that is, when anti-Semitism came dressed in a German uniform, or a skinhead in a pair of Doc Martens.
None, however, were focused on the more contemporary variant of anti-Semitism which was the focus of our programme: the updating of all the old tropes, the poisonous ideas and assumptions of classic anti-Semitism mapped onto the Israel-Palestine conflict: trickery, malevolent power, conspiracy, a visceral loathing of Zionism, narratives which have corrupted otherwise legitimate criticism of the world’s only Jewish state into centuries old Jew hate.
Not until 2018 when Jewish members of the Labour party began to voice their discomfort at Corbynistas making them feel barely tolerated because of their support for the Zionist principle of a secure Jewish homeland – despite their criticism of Israeli governments — does Corbyn himself seem to have had anything much to say about this.
Which perhaps is not surprising since Corbyn had once championed groups that sought the “eradication of Zionism” on the basis that Zionism was “inherently racist” and that the “Zionist state” was “racist, exclusivist, expansionist and a direct agency of imperialism.”
Corbyn had also campaigned alongside several high-profile members of the Labour party who have recently been kicked out for anti-Semitism, to say nothing of his well-documented association with extremists, the odd Holocaust denier, and blatant anti- Semites.
“His is a voice that must be heard” said Corbyn in 2012 of the Palestinian preacher Raed Salah, inviting him to take tea on the terrace of the House of Commons just days after the UK Upper Immigration Tribunal had found as a fact that Salah had invoked the lowest of low tricks to stir up violent Arab protest against Jews in Jerusalem by invoking the medieval blood libel that Jews once murdered Christian children for their blood to make matzah for Passover, to say nothing of Salah’s reference to Jews as the “bacteria of all times”.
And what was Corbyn’s response? “He did not at any stage utter any anti-Semitic remarks to me,” said Corbyn when challenged in 2015. As Professor Alan Johnson, author of Institutionally Anti-Semitic: Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism told Panorama: “Can we possibly imagine a leader of the Labour Party inviting an anti-black racist to have tea on the Terrace of the House Commons and then other party members say, ‘But hold on Jeremy, look at this terrible um racist statements he’s made,’ and the leader doesn’t really look but then says, ‘Well he didn’t say anything like that to me.’”
Many were bewildered at how Labour could have even contemplated their righteous outburst against the BBC in the face of such dismal judgements by an avowed anti-racist aspiring to lead the country.
And yet, if you knew nothing about Corbyn’s past and relied solely on two articles published in his name in 2018 and his letter to the Board of Deputies when he sought to win back Jews who were leaving Labour, you’d think he had a fine-tuned grasp of contemporary anti-Semitism, its nuances and its history.
In his letter and articles, Corbyn acknowledged that “while the forms of anti-Semitism expressed on the far right of politics are easily detectable, such as Holocaust denial, there needs to be a deeper understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism in the labour movement”; he referred to “newer forms of anti-Semitism” being “woven into criticism of Israeli governments”; he spoke of “individuals on the fringes of the movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people (who) can stray into anti-Semitic views”; he condemned “hoary myths about ‘Jewish bankers’ and ‘sinister global forces’”; and he said the concerns of Jewish communities about rising anti-Semitism should not be dismissed as “smears”.
Although Corbyn signed off these three pieces, it’s difficult to believe that unaided, he conceived and structured the arguments, and wrote the words. Nor, I am told, did he write a pamphlet Labour published shortly after our Panorama called “No Place for anti-Semitism” which, for the first time, addressed in clear terms the nuances of contemporary anti-Semitism and acknowledged that “Most British Jews feel connected to some extent to Israel and many have friends and family there… The concepts of Israel, Zion and Jerusalem run deeply in Jewish religion, identity and culture, and for many are symbolic of a homeland, refuge, or place of safety. The sensitivities around these concepts should be considered before using them.”
The pamphlet ends with an intriguing line from Corbyn himself. “I have learned so much,” he wrote, commending it to Labour members.
Could it be that this “how very dare you” lifelong anti-racist who protests that he’ll go to his grave fighting racism in all its forms, only “learned” about the signs and symptoms of contemporary anti-Semitism in 2018 when Jewish Labour members felt they had no choice but to slap him in the face with it?
A more courageous, more principled, self-reflecting politician who aspires to No.10 Downing St and to lead by example would have had the strength of character to own up to his decades long insensitivity. Had Corbyn done so, I have little doubt he would — rightly — have won the grudging respect of many Jewish members of his party. But he hasn’t. In fact, as if to exculpate his own radical pro-Palestinian activism from contributing to today’s hostile climate against Jews, the following words in Corbyn’s name appeared in the Guardian: “In the 1970s some on the left mistakenly argued that Zionism is racism.”
Who is the “some” Jeremy? Why, the backbench MP who was in the vanguard the “Zionism is racism” campaign — that’s who Jeremy. You! No mea culpa. Just chutzpah.
Is Johnson’s character made of sterner stuff?
My documentary (“When Boris met Jennifer”) could not do justice to the reputational risks that the then 48-year-old married Mayor took when embarking on his four-year affair with Jennifer Arcuri, then 27.
Source protection prevented me from fleshing out the more intimate details of their relationship which would have shown why – as his former editor Max Hastings has said – the man is morally bankrupt, and that he was well aware he was running headlong into conflict with the Greater London Assembly Code of Conduct to which he had signed up.
Based on the seven (Nolan) principles of ethical conduct in public life, the GLA code included a duty on Mayor Johnson to declare any private interests relating to his public duties and to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest. The code also included the requirement that he avoid bringing his office into disrepute or using his position (or even attempting to use it) to improperly confer on himself an advantage, or on Arcuri. She insists Johnson attended her tech conferences because he believed they were in the public interest, which plainly they were because they sought to advance investment in East London’s emerging Tech City. But Johnson also very much believed in the contours of his lover’s curvaceous body, as he often told her. As for Arcuri, whilst a hardworking, ambitious and enterprising businesswoman in her own right, his presence boosted the sale of tickets to her conferences.
After Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary in July 2016, he continued to pursue Arcuri complaining to her that he hated the job because it was so hard to break free from his security people to get time with her.
Knowing the details of this relationship as I now do, it is not surprising to me that as prime minister, Theresa May is reported to have restricted Johnson’s access to the most sensitive intelligence from MI6 and GCHQ
Knowing the details of this relationship as I now do, it is not surprising to me that as prime minister, Theresa May is reported to have restricted Johnson’s access to the most sensitive intelligence from MI6 and GCHQ even though both agencies are normally answerable to the Foreign Secretary, albeit under the overall authority of the Prime Minister.
For a man in such a public position, Mayor Johnson’s pursuit of Arcuri was at times reckless. It came a mere 18 months after he had undertaken to the City Hall Standards Committee to “bear in mind the definition of close associate for the future”, the committee having ruled that he had failed to declare a potential conflict of interest by appointing his then lover Helen McIntyre, an arts consultant, to an unpaid public position as a fundraiser whilst pregnant with his child.
Nonetheless, although between 2012 and 2016, Johnson submitted to the GLA Monitoring Officer nine letters disclosing his private interests, in none of them did he list Arcuri by name, despite confiding in her that he was concerned their relationship might be a conflict of interest. Even so, Johnson’s anxieties don’t seem to have taught him to err on the side of caution.
Earlier this year, Parliament’s Standards Commissioner said Johnson “might be regarded as showing a lack of respect” for the rules for failing to register a share of a Somerset property within 28 days of acquiring it. “I do not accept that this was an inadvertent breach of the rules,” said the Commissioner adding that it revealed a “pattern of behaviour” regarding declarations.
In August 2018, just three days after quitting as Foreign Secretary, Johnson also breached the Ministerial Code by starting a £275,000-a-year newspaper column. He was later ordered to apologise for failing to declare £52,723 of income on time.
It is perhaps because of Johnson’s cavalier regard for some of the ethical principles expected of public servants, especially one as senior as the London Mayor, that the Independent Office for Police Conduct is, I understand, taking very seriously the referral to them by the GLA Monitoring Officer, of Johnson’s failure to declare his relationship with Arcuri to see if it merits a criminal investigation into Misconduct in Public Office.
The evidential threshold for a Misconduct conviction is ordinarily very high: it would require proof that any breach of the GLA Code by Johnson was not only “wilful” (as distinct from merely “reckless”) but that it was to such an extent as to cause an abuse of the public’s trust in him. In Johnson’s case, the referral to the IPOC has been made under the ominously sounding “special standards framework” within the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 and the Elected Local Policing Bodies (Complaints and Misconduct) Regulations 2012. This is because during Johnson’s alleged breach, he was responsible for policing in the capital and for holding the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to account.
As for Johnson’s hold on the truth, it’s hard, if not impossible to understand how anything he has said in his defence about the Arcuri affair is true. By continually failing to declare his relationship with her, it seems highly unlikely that he will be adjudged –– as he so tetchily insists— to have observed the “full propriety” of public office” or to have had “no interest to declare” or to have done “everything… with complete propriety and in the normal way.”
“Does the truth matter?” the Prime Minister was asked in Manchester at the ITV Leader’s debate last week? “I think it does” he replied. No, it doesn’t – not to Johnson anyway. His dissimulation over Arcuri is merely the latest in an ever lengthening list of public lies and half-truths too long to itemise, beginning at the age of 24 when he was fired from the Times as a reporter for inventing a quote in a front-page story. And in this election, credible, deliverable promises from both Corbyn and Johnson have become more fantastical than ever.
Respect for truth over questions of personal conduct, and facts in policy making have diminished and it’s clear from last week’s Leaders’ debate, that a cynic hardened public know this.
More than any previous election, this will be a hold-your-nose-and-vote contest, as will future elections for as long as the choice over who should be prime minister is a choice between two party leaders brought to power by opposing hard-line ideologies of the Left and the Right.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe