It's official: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — or Boris, as he prefers to be known — is replacing Theresa May as prime minister after winning twice the number of votes from Conservative party members as his rival Jeremy Hunt.
The Tory MP, former foreign secretary, and ex-London mayor has never been discreet about his hunger for the top job, but the timing probably wasn’t what he’d envisioned as he glided through the corridors of Eton, Oxford, and the Houses of Parliament. Johnson has pledged to deliver Brexit — one of the biggest political crises in recent history — before October 31 at whatever cost, even if that means leaving the EU with no deal, the risk of which may have already pushed the U.K. into a recession and could break up the country.
Perhaps, given the shambolic way in which Brexit has unfolded (Boris was one of the most vocal protagonists on the Leave side) and Donald Trump's shock election in 2016, we should've been better prepared for a self-styled clown with a history of racist, sexist, and homophobic comments, and a résumé of professional failures and misjudgments, becoming head of the U.K. government.
Even after a drawn-out leadership race, we still know relatively little about Johnson's future plans for the U.K., other than on Brexit, a proposed tax cut that would most benefit the richest 10%, and a handful of less headline-grabbing ideas.
It's easy to be distracted by PR stunts, but let's take a minute to take a cold, hard look at the new prime minister’s track record on some of the issues that affect women most.
Boris Johnson & Carrie Symonds: The Prime Minister's Personal Life
Let's start with the scandal that dominated late June, in which police were called to the flat that Johnson shares with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds in the early hours, after his neighbor heard a loud argument between the couple that involved screaming, slamming, and banging. According to reports, Symonds was heard shouting "get off me" and "get out of my flat." Other neighbors corroborated the account: "It was a proper tear-up," one recalled. "Glasses being smashed, screaming, and a lot of arguing. I thought someone was being murdered." Following the incident, Johnson said he does "not talk about stuff involving my family, my loved ones"; his most loyal disciples and right-wing commentators defended him, with some claiming that concerned neighbors shouldn't call the police if they hear an argument.
A coalition of U.K. anti-domestic abuse advocates — including End Violence Against Women, Solace Women's Act, and SafeLives — co-signed a statement defending Johnson's neighbors' actions, and urging others to take similar action. "It’s not for us to judge what happens in anyone’s relationship, but it is for us all to take action if we are concerned about someone’s safety," they said.
With two women dying at the hands of current or former partners in England and Wales every week and a quarter of women experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime, encouraging silence and denouncing the episode as a "left-wing smear campaign" is literally life-threatening. It risks undoing the progress campaigners and charities have made in tackling the idea that we have no collective responsibility to victims of male violence.
And as for Johnson's leadership rival Jeremy Hunt saying the incident is "irrelevant to the leadership debate" because "what happens in people's personal lives is really a matter for them"? This, combined with Hunt's troubling stance on abortion, shows British women are right to feel concerned about a new PM and cabinet might mean.
Boris Johnson's Position On Abortion
The June argument with his partner was far from the first time Johnson has remained silent on issues affecting women. He has always abstained from Westminster votes on abortion, including those related to Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances other than when a woman's life is at risk, and a vote on introducing independent abortion counseling.
Critics also argue Johnson's lack of political support for abortion is hypocritical given his personal life. Back in 2004 it was reported that Johnson's alleged mistress, Petronella Wyatt, had two abortions while having an affair with the then-married father of four — one of which he reportedly paid for. Johnson was sacked from the Tory front bench when the truth about the affair emerged, rumors about which he had previously dismissed as an "inverted pyramid of piffle."
"To abstain is to maintain the status quo, which is to deny fundamental reproductive healthcare to citizens of Northern Ireland," says Kellie O'Dowd, co-chair of the abortion rights campaign group Alliance for Choice, which is pushing for reform in the country. O'Dowd believes a Johnson prime ministership would "set feminism and women's rights back decades" and confirm that "misogyny, racism, and classism are alive and well in the U.K."
Boris Johnson's Attitudes Toward Women As A Politician
Johnson is known for using his platform as a politician, and his Telegraph column for which he receives a £275k salary (that's an hourly rate of £2,291), to spout offensive comments about women. One column last August compared veiled Muslim women to "letter boxes" and "bank robbers." Tell Mama, which records hate crimes, drew a direct link between the comments and subsequent Islamophobic abuse: Four women reported being called letter boxes the week after the column, compared to zero the previous week.
"I wonder if the Muslim women Boris has mocked and dehumanized in the name of being direct are now wondering how he is running for prime minister and why his opinions of degradation and fear-mongering are being rewarded with popularity," wrote Mariam Khan, editor of It's Not About The Burqa, for the Metro recently.
Six years earlier, during the 2012 Olympics when he was London mayor, Johnson used his column to detail his "magnificent" time watching the volleyball athletes, describing them as "glistening like wet otters". A few months prior, female members of the London Assembly expressed concern over his "disrespectful, patronizing way at meetings" towards female politicians that "[he does] not display when dealing with male assembly members." He denied being "remotely sexist" but the following year he suggested women only go to university because they "have got to find men to marry," during a panel alongside the Malaysian prime minister.
More recently, last year, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow accused Johnson of sexism for referring to the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry as Lady Nugee, her spouse's title, rather than her actual name.
Boris Johnson's Sexist Language As A Journalist
Because of his long public career — which includes being fired twice, the first time while at The Times for fabricating a front-page story and then from the shadow front bench for lying about his affair in 2004 — evidence of Johnson's views toward women goes back decades. During the 1996 Labour Party conference, for instance, he wrote a piece reviewing "the hot totty" in attendance for the Telegraph.
"The unanimous opinion is that what has been called the 'Tottymeter' reading is higher than at any Labour Party conference in living memory," he wrote, concluding that it was women's "fickleness" that explained why women were turning to the party. "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."
According to his Telegraph colleagues, Johnson also had a Pirelli calendar on his desk featuring naked women, which he kept on display despite complaints that it made women in the office feel uncomfortable. After leaving The Telegraph, where he was assistant editor, Johnson became editor of the right-leaning Spectator magazine. In his last editor's letter, he advised his successor to "just pat [Kimberly Quinn, the magazine's publisher at the time] on the bottom and send her on her way."
She's got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.
Boris Johnson describing Hillary Clinton in 2007
Johnson was also known for using derogatory sexual imagery in his column for GQ, which he was awarded in 1999. "The reviews relied on words such as 'filly', 'chicks' and 'flapping kimonos' and were garnished with plenty of 'gearstick' gags," writes Sonia Purnell in Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, a biography of her former colleague. "There is talk of blonde drivers 'waggling their rumps,' his own superior horsepower 'taking them from behind,' aided by tantalizing thoughts of the imaginary 'ample bosoms' of the female Sat Nav voice."
Even after making his political ambitions known, during his campaign to become the Conservative MP for Henley in the 2005 general election, he tried to win over supporters — who he seemed to assume were all male — by promising "voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts."
Two years later, in 2007, Johnson was still commenting on female politicians' looks. In one Telegraph column, he wrote of Hillary Clinton: "She's got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital."
Boris Johnson's Stances On LGBTQ+ Rights
Johnson has a history of homophobic comments. In a 1998 Telegraph column about the resignation of Peter Mandelson, who is gay, from the Labour government, Johnson referred to gay men as "tank-topped bumboys" who would be "blubbing" in "the Ministry of Sound" nightclub, and "the soft-lit Soho drinking clubs frequented by Mandy and his pals."
In another Telegraph column, he described proposals to increase equality for LGBTQ+ people at the BBC as "a spoof", according to Business Insider, which unearthed the column. "In my hand was a magazine from something called the BBC Resources Equal Opportunities Unit," Johnson wrote. "There were letters from gays asking about their 'partner's' right to a BBC pension."
In 2000, writing for the Spectator, he attacked "Labour’s appalling agenda, encouraging the teaching of homosexuality in schools." When Johnson voted to abolish Section 28 (the homophobic law banning local authorities and schools from "promoting" homosexuality) in 2003, defying the party line, his reasoning was that he "object[ed] to schools being told what to do by government."
In his 2001 book, Friends, Voters, Countrymen, Johnson compared same-sex marriage to bestiality, writing: "If gay marriage was okay — and I was uncertain on the issue — then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog."
By the time he became mayor of London in 2008, Johnson supported marriage equality, but he was still making offensive remarks. In 2013 he was forced to apologize for joking, during a gala dinner for Pride, that gay men should take their husbands up the "Arcelor" on their wedding day, a reference to the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture in London's Olympic Park.
In 2018, Johnson was quick to defend the Spectator columnist and government advisor Toby Young, a longtime friend and colleague, when several of his sexist and homophobic tweets and articles were brought to light (in one column he referred to "hard-core dykes", while in another he described George Clooney as "queer as a coot"). Johnson described the outcry as "ridiculous" and praised Young's "caustic wit."
That same year, as foreign secretary, Johnson signed off a law in Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory, banning same-sex marriage. A court later found the law to be in breach of human rights.
"I do not think that Boris Johnson is fit to lead anything, much less the United Kingdom."— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) June 14, 2019
The lesbian couple who were recently subjected to suspected homophobic attack on a bus in London have criticised Boris Johnson for his previous homophobic remarks. pic.twitter.com/eS1nRrlest
Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris, the young lesbian couple who were violently attacked on a London night bus in May after refusing to kiss, have come out against Boris Johnson's prime ministerial hopes. "I do not think that Boris Johnson is fit to lead anything, much less the United Kingdom," Chris told Channel 4 News, adding that Johnson's past anti-LGBTQ+ comments were "very much aligned with the global political climate of today."
After this story was published a spokesperson from Boris Johnson's campaign office provided the following statement from the Metropolitan Police, issued after the incident at Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds' home on June 21. It read: “Police attended and spoke to all occupants of the address, who were all safe and well. There were no offenses or concerns apparent to the officers and there was no cause for police action."