Downing Street has refuted a report that Boris Johnson squeezed the thighs of two journalists sitting on either side of him at a private lunch when he was editor of The Spectator.
One of the women, Charlotte Edwardes, made the claim in The Sunday Times yesterday, saying the incident happened 20 years ago in the dining room at the magazine’s London offices.
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What did Edwardes say?
In her debut column for the Sunday Times’ Style magazine, Edwardes said she had been sitting to the now prime minister’s right during one of The Spectator’s “renowned” lunches.
“Under the table, I feel Johnson’s hand on my thigh. He gives it a squeeze. His hand is high up my leg and he has enough inner flesh beneath his fingers to make me sit suddenly upright,” she wrote.
“Afterwards, I confide in the young woman on his other side. She replies: ‘Oh God, he did exactly the same to me.’”
What was Downing Street’s response?
A No. 10 spokesperson simply said that the “allegation is untrue”, but The Sun claims Johnson issued a more stongly worded denial behind closed doors, apparently telling his aides: “This is f***ing untrue.”
Edwardes later tweeted that if the PM “doesn’t recollect the incident then clearly I have a better memory than he does”.
What happens next?
As The Sun notes, “sleaze scandals” are threatening to “engulf No. 10”.
The thigh squeeze allegation comes days after the PM was referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) over claims that while serving as London mayor, he used his position to “benefit and reward” US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri.
A Downing Street spokesperson insisted that “everything was done with propriety and in the normal way”. Meanwhile, an unnamed senior government source told reporters: “The public and media will rightly see through such a nakedly political put-up job.”
But the response to the thigh squeeze claim has been mixed among Johnson’s fellow Tories at the Conservative Party conference, currently taking place in Manchester. Health Secretary Matt Hancock drew condemnation for suggesting that Johnson should not be lectured about his “private life”.
Hancock later rowed back, telling Channel 4: “I know Charlotte well and I entirely trust what she has to say.”
Former cabinet minister Amber Rudd publicly agreed with that assessment of the journalist.
Former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt said Johnson “occasionally has the style of Frank Spencer in a china shop”, but insisted “he’s a decent person” and “cares a great deal about women and girls”. And Tory MP Rachel Maclean, who also works for the Conservative Women in Parliament group, described him as a “feminist”.
“Whatever these party figures believe privately about these allegations, they are struggling to address them satisfactorily in public,” says Ailbhe Rea in the New Statesman. “Their hope is that the issue will simply go away before someone veers off script and inflames the issue further. Given what we’ve seen so far, that looks unlikely.”
Paul Waugh at the HuffPost adds that “in many ways, this is a depressingly familiar #metoo moment”, but warns: “Expect more Tories, and Leave voters, to suggest new claims about his personal conduct are an attempt to stop Brexit.”
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