Tory loyalists have found a form of feminism to stroke, like a magic unicorn. Of course, it is individualistic and, laughably, in the service of just one individual: Carrie Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife.
She is the subject of First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson, a critical book by Lord Ashcroft, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. In response to this portrait, we are told attacks on Mrs Johnson are an affront to women’s rights, often by men who usually treat feminism — I mean real feminism — as a dangerous aberration. Having secured Mrs Johnson with their peculiar feminism, will they turn next to domestic violence, to low wages, to poor housing, and their gruesome impact on women, who are, as a class, always at the bottom, a form of human sludge?
Don’t be stupid. Feminism, which is a movement taken hostage, has long been going this way: from the universal feminism that protects all women to the particular feminism that protects just one, and at the expense of others: the feminism of oneself. That this pitiful thing should be marshalled to support a very privileged woman in the palace of her privilege is desolate, but not surprising. That is what it is for.
The defence is dishonest, of course. A woman — a person — with vast and unelected (and therefore unaccountable) power is criticised because she is feared. And she should be feared because she is an affront: to the democratic process. If this criticism upsets her, I don’t much care. The feminism of hurt feelings has no truck with me, and nor does the feminism of an inalienable right to a sympathetic press. That is the detritus of tyranny, and we are still, at least nominally, a parliamentary democracy.
Do they care about what matters most? Democratic processes were subverted to secure the golden wallpaper in the previously repulsive “John Lewis-style” flat above the office; donations were sought; self-serving lies were told. That it was trivia — the wallpaper is golden! — makes it more of an offence, not less. You would subvert democratic processes — for this?
Elements of the country lost faith in the democratic process due to the Johnsons’ treatment of the rules under pandemic. There was a party celebrating her victory over a rival faction while people died alone in fear, and that cannot be undone. If you wield power — and she does — you must be willing to be judged for how you wield it. You should welcome it. She should have done a better job as the Prime Minister’s partner, unless you think her so pathetic, being female, she could have done no better. Of course, it is easier to hate women, and pretty women more than any other kind, for they have a combustible kind of power. It comes more naturally. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fair.
So, we have a woman with unaccountable power treating feminism, a prostrate political movement, as a defensive earthwork. We also have a consuming personal drama that, though fascinating, is no substitute for a functioning state. Carrie Johnson is a symptom of two things: a failing and empty parliamentary Tory Party and a failing and empty man.
For years we have treated Boris Johnson like a riddle, a fortune cookie, a Reality TV contestant we long to tear apart and divine. What is inside him? What is at the core of his contradictions, this supposed scholar who dangles from a zipwire with a tiny Union flag? Nothing, we now know, is the answer. Nothing. His laughter is ashes and his sunlit uplands a mirage of his invention. He is essentially a void, and you can project anything onto a void.
There is one story in which Johnson makes sense, and it is in Tom Bower’s recent biography The Gambler. According to Bower, Johnson’s father, Stanley, assaulted his wife Charlotte, who was an artist. Bower has this quotation from Charlotte Wahl, who has since died: “He broke my nose. He made me feel like I deserved it.” Charlotte was also hospitalised for depression, and her children were scattered.
This is the root of Johnson, his dreams of optimism and control — the remaking of oneself as powerful and happy is a lonely child’s dream — and the root too of his actions to women, which are so repetitive as to be barely worth repeating: seduction and betrayal. He has Don Juan syndrome, which is a desire to cleave to, and to punish, the mother who abandoned him. He has betrayed every woman who cared for him, and many who didn’t. The stories of his adulteries are too legion to type out. If he has a longing for transformation, it is not political at all. It is entirely personal, and that is why people were drawn to him, and why he has failed them.
According to those who have left Downing Street in despair, Johnson mirrors his wife. He mirrors everyone and tells them what they want to hear, because then they will love him. A weathervane will shift to the wind because it is easy. If Carrie Johnson has too much power, it is because he took it from those who should have it and gave it to her instead. I think his premiership will be destroyed by it and, considering what he has done to the women he has known, it is a mad kind of justice.
If this drama goes on, and it will until the Tory Party stops it dead, she will be hated. And yet, none of it would have happened without him. She is a symptom of his unfitness for office and yet another woman he has ruined.