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Johnson blindsided as he’s quizzed about Arcuri affair

John Crace
·4-min read

It had all been going so well. True, there hadn’t been as many questions at his Downing Street press conference on his new anti-virals taskforce as he had hoped, but Boris Johnson could live with that. After all, he’d rather expected most people to be more interested in the ongoing European Super League saga than an announcement of yet another taskforce. Especially one that sounded quite similar to the therapeutics taskforce which even he sometimes forgot existed.

But he hadn’t counted on Paul Waugh from HuffPost. Waugh had opened with a relatively straightforward question about the government’s climate change targets but had then totally blindsided him.

“Do you agree with the Independent Office for Police Conduct,” Waugh said, “which in its review of your links with Jennifer Arcuri concluded, and I quote: ‘It would have been wise for Mr Johnson to include this as a conflict of interest and a failure to do so could have constituted a breach of the Nolan principles and those principle include acting with honesty and integrity.’ Do you believe you acted with honesty and integrity in your relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, who claims you conducted your affair in the marital home?”

Boris responded with several minutes of waffle about the UK meeting its green targets, desperately hoping that time would stop. That some deus ex machina would descend into the new £2.6m Downing Street media centre – on reflection, maybe he had got a little carried away after rewatching the first three series of the West Wing early on in the first lockdown and his press secretary wouldn’t be giving daily briefings after all – that would bring proceedings to a halt. And that he could sneak out without answering.

But no relief was forthcoming and there was only so long he could go on about green air travel. So, to his own surprise as much as everyone else’s, he answered the Arcuri question. Not that he could bring himself to mention Arcuri by name, but he did for the first time in public admit that they had had an affair. “In response to your second question,” Johnson said awkwardly, “the answer is yes”. This was the prime minister’s moral code. There was nothing wrong with conducting an affair wherever you liked. And there was also nothing wrong with inviting your lover on trade missions to boost her career. For some politicians, such an admission could have been career ending. For Boris not so much.

Even so, it did rather overshadow what Johnson had hoped would be another run of the mill, feelgood press conference. One where the details of the UK’s new taskforce and how much money it would be allocated were kept vague. Was the aim of the taskforce to repurpose existing drugs just to help treat people with coronavirus at home or was it also to find more expensive anti-viral treatments for those who needed hospitalisation as well? We never did find out. Perhaps the government has yet to make up its mind.

Not that it mattered that much as most journalists’ minds were on other things. Like why it had taken so long to put India on the travel red list and could it have been because Johnson had been so keen for his prime ministerial visit to go ahead next week? Boris did his best to look shocked. There was no link whatsoever. The Indian variant still wasn’t a variant of concern and the UK was really just playing it safe by putting India on the red list as of Friday. Hmm.

Johnson was far happier talking about football. Not because he likes the game – at least he spares us the embarrassment of David Cameron trying to work out whether he supports Aston Villa or West Ham – but because his fast, decisive approach has chimed with the hostility of almost the entire country towards the big six clubs planning a breakaway league. It might have saved a few thousand lives if he’d chosen to act as quickly at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Just a thought. Not that Johnson knew what he was going to do about the ESL. Right now threatening to do just about anything seemed to be working well enough.

Then came the Arcuri question and Johnson was feeling thoroughly pissed off by the time he made it back to the Downing Street flat. Though there was some good news to lift the mood. Johnny Mercer had resigned as a junior defence minister over the government’s refusal to allow soldiers to get away with possible war crimes. It was a strange hill for Mercer to die on. But then he’d never really rated him, so it was good to have him out the way.