LONDON — It is, even by British standards, a juicy mess: A political and journalistic whodunnit, about the country’s most watched tabloid star — not Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, but the serially in-hot-water Boris Johnson.
Then the article disappeared.
On Wednesday, the allegations burst forth again, into the full public record, in the House of Commons, where the very first question in the combative weekly ritual known as Prime Minister’s Questions, was posed by the Labour Party lawmaker Chris Elmore, who asked Johnson if he had ever considered the appointment of his current spouse to a government post, or a post with the royal household.
“Yes or no?” Elmore insisted.
The Conservative prime minister complained that his critics did not want to discuss the economy, and the number of people fully employed under his administration.
He said the Labour Party wanted to talk about “nonexistent jobs” because “they don’t want to talk about what’s going on in the real world.”
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, tried to ding Johnson by asking, mockingly, that if he ever does need advice, “about, say, a £100,000 job at the Foreign Office,” he will ask the prime minister.
As artful, or not, as Johnson’s answer might have been, he remains a suspected serial fibber. Public opinion polls suggest he is not widely trusted, even by his supporters.
Parliament is now investigating whether Johnson lied to the House of Commons in his answers to earlier questions about a string of boozy parties held at Downing Street during the strict covid lockdowns, some of those parties hosted by his wife Carrie Johnson.
The prime minister and his wife were both fined over those parties.
The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, published its article under the headline: “Johnson tried to give Carrie top Foreign Office job during affair.” Then, the article was removed from later editions and disappeared from the Times website, without explanation.
You can read it now on Twitter as a saved image.
Tim Walker, a journalist at the New European newspaper, was the first to write about the vanishing story. He was tipped by a journalist working in the Times newsroom who was “outraged and despairing at what was happening.”
“I think why the story got traction was it was really two stories. It was a corruption story of Johnson trying to give a job to his then mistress, but also about the corruption in journalism,” Walker said. “Journalists and politicians in our country are too cozy.”
Johnson, himself, is a former journalist. He was fired from his first journalism job, at the Times of London, for making up a quote. He went on to make a name for himself during his years as a Brussels-based foreign correspondent, sometimes filing outrageous dispatches, criticized by his colleagues as half true.
The Times did not respond to questions by The Washington Post or others.
Carrie Johnson’s spokesperson told ITV News that reports that Johnson tried to give his then-girlfriend a job in the Foreign Office were “totally untrue.”
According to the BBC, “The prime minister’s spokesman said he understood the story to be untrue but refused to directly deny it, saying he could not comment on things that may have happened before Mr. Johnson became prime minister but pointed to a denial from Carrie Johnson.”
A Downing Street spokesman did confirm that their office contacted The Times over the story.
Britain’s deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, told Sky News that there was a “feeding frenzy” designed to hurt Carrie Johnson “as a means to get the prime minister.” He called it “out of order” and “deeply unsavory.”
The Daily Mirror last week reported that Johnson last year discussed roles for his wife as a “green ambassador” for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow and as communications director for Prince William’s Earthshot Prize.
The reporter of the original Times article, for his part, is not backing off.
“I stand by the story 100 percent,” Simon Walters told the New European newspaper.
Walters said he had discussions with Downing Street “at a high level” and Carrie Johnson’s spokeswoman before the paper went to press. “At no point did any of them offer an on-the-record denial of any element of the story,” he said.
Walters is a freelance journalist who worked for years at The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. Last year he broke the “Wallpaper-gate” story, revealing that Johnson had not properly declared money from Conservative donors who helped pay for decorations in his apartment.
The claims were also made by Michael Ashcroft, a Conservative politician, in his book “First Lady,” which was serialized in the Daily Mail in February.
“By the spring of 2018, a small number of Johnson’s staff had become aware the couple were having an affair,” Ashcroft reported. “Some were dismayed that he had betrayed his wife, Marina, whom they knew and liked. Others took the view that it was none of their business. All now understood why Johnson had been so keen to hire Carrie as his chief of staff.” That article remains online.
Paul Lashmar, who teaches journalism ethics at London’s City University, said there were many odd things about the story: why, having decided to run it, The Times didn’t put the story on the front page; why was it yanked; why the silence about it?
“When something gets into the paper, you usually stand by your journalist, you don’t just yank it out,” he said. He said it was a “questionable decision” by the Times of London to not comment on their decision-making.
“The ethical position on this would be for the paper to say, ‘we have pulled the story while we evaluate it further. We don’t want to publish something we think is wrong. We will check it out further and if we’re happy with it, we will republish it in the paper tomorrow,’” Lashmar said.
The story is easily findable. “Everyone is passing the photo of the page around and it spread like wildfire. I’d speculate it had more impact having been pulled then had the paper left it quietly in the corner of the paper where it was,” the professor said.
Christopher Geidt, Johnson’s former ethics adviser, who resigned last week, told the Telegraph newspaper that “a foreign minister who offered a top job to a future wife “could be ripe for investigation.”