Boris Johnson faces questions of character

Tory leadership campaign focus shifts as senior Tories question frontrunner’s suitability for Number 10

(Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson’s failure to address questions about a police call out to the flat of his girlfriend following an alleged row on Thursday threatens to derail his Tory leadership bid, as polls show support for his challenger Jeremy Hunt growing.

The Guardian reported on Friday that police had been called to the south London flat Johnson shares with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, after neighbours dialled 999 after overhearing a loud altercation.

Yet despite dominating Saturday’s front pages, at the first Tory leadership hustings in Birmingham later that day, the former foreign secretary repeatedly refused to answer questions about the incident. In a tetchy exchange with LBC’s Iain Dale, who was hosting the event, Johnson was accused of “completely avoiding” the issue after telling the audience that people did not “want to hear about that kind of thing”. When pressed on whether understanding his character was important in the battle to replace Theresa May, Johnson insisted he would only talk about his plans “for the country and our party”.

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The decision by Symonds’ neighbours to record the row and then leak it has drawn questions about their motives. Amid a growing backlash from some sections of the media, Tom Penn broke cover to defend himself over the weekend, saying he gave his recording to The Guardian because Johnson should be “held accountable” for all of his “words, actions, and behaviours”.

The playwright has been described by the Daily Telegraph as “left-wing”. The paper reports his wife, Eve Leigh, “a pro-EU theatre producer and writer, has bragged on social media about an incident in which she made a rude gesture to Johnson outside their building in south London” and has also “defended Jeremy Corbyn against claims of anti-Semitism and earlier this year one of her plays featured in Brexit Stage Left, a pro-EU festival with European funding”.

Friends of Symonds said her anger over the incident was directed at Penn and Leigh rather than Johnson, The Times reports. They said she believed her neighbours’ decision to record the incident and give the tape to a left-wing newspaper was a “dirty tricks story”.

James Cleverly, the former party chairman, appeared to suggest the call to the police was in order to cause trouble for the Tory frontrunner.

“The big element in the Boris story isn’t that there was a heated argument, it’s that the police were called,” Cleverly said.

Yet whatever his neighbour’s motivations, Johnson’s failure to address questions around the incident has prompted some senior Tories to raise fresh concerns about his suitability for Number 10.

Foreign office minister Alan Duncan, who worked under Johnson during his time as foreign secretary, said his old boss now had a “big question mark over his head” adding that he had shown a “lack of discipline” throughout his career.

Speaking to BBC's Andrew Marr, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who is backing Jeremy Hunt, said it would be “easier” for Johnson to “just give an explanation” about the row. Meanwhile former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said Johnson risked looking like he had something to hide.

“If you are a candidate to be prime minister and the police have been called to your house – fairly or unfairly – the fact is there was a police visit. You don’t just say ‘no comment’. That implies you may have something you don't want to disclose,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

The story “has shifted the Tory leadership focus firmly onto character” says Politico, “sending many Conservatives into a quiet panic”.

The Mail on Sunday says leadership contender Jeremy Hunt “has made no secret that he hopes to make the head-to-head Tory leadership battle against Johnson all about character”.

While refusing to comment directly on Johnson’s private life, Hunt nevertheless said his rival did not “deserve” to lead the country unless he answered questions about his “character”.

In what the Sunday Times calls “an astonishing escalation of hostilities”, cabinet allies of Hunt claimed that Johnson’s colourful private life meant he was a security risk and vulnerable to blackmail from foreign powers.

In a sign this strategy could pay dividends for Hunt’s campaign, more than half of Tory voters have said Johnson's private life was relevant to his ability to be prime minister and three-quarters said a candidate's character was relevant to the contest.

The survey for The Mail on Sunday, found Johnson’s lead among Tory voters as the man who would make the best prime minister has more than halved, from a 27-point lead to just 11 since Thursday, with Hunt taking the lead among the wider public.

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