Should a man or woman’s extramarital entanglements be a factor when judging their professional proficiency? There seems to be an enormous reluctance to pass judgment on a colleague’s private life. In the thrill of excitement over Matt Hancock’s affair with aide Gina Coladangelo, his peers lined up to remind us that the man should only be censured for any professional impropriety, such as breaking lockdown rules or misappropriation of government funding. Few, if any, suggested that Boris Johnson should sack him because he’d been behaving like a douche.
I’ve never understood the leniency we extend to philanderers and adulterers. There seems to be a commonly held belief that such lapses in our moral judgment have little bearing on our competence at work. On the contrary, I find a person’s sexual history to be the most telling thing about them. Surely one should need no further evidence of a person’s character than the fact they have been revealed to be cheating on their spouse. If they can tell bald-faced lies about their activities to their friends, family and children, what makes anyone think they can be trusted to do their job?
But I take a very hardline view of adulterous behaviour, possibly owing to the strict Baptist fervour that spikes the family genes. True, I will delight in the sordid details of a bonkbuster tabloid scorcher, and eke out every column inch of detail, but I am also prone to overbearing sanctimony when discussing the repercussions, and will rarely consider forgiveness, even in the face of great remorse. Once a shit, always a shit, tends to be my verdict, though I’ve tried to be more open-minded, and have listened to all the podcasts by the affair apologist and therapist Esther Perel.
While I may have the morals of a scandalised Victorian, the world’s attitude to infidelity has shifted to a far more generous point of view. According to the US General Social Survey, one in five men can be expected to cheat on their partners, with women not that far behind. In a 2016 survey by YouGov America it was revealed that more than a third of adults under 30 had engaged in sexual activity with someone other than their partner. Of these, just under half did so with their partner’s consent.
But shouldn’t politicians try to tamp their baser feelings down? Even the most libertarian of judges regarding the former health minister’s imbroglio must see a transgression of the moral code to which he is supposed to have subscribed.
According to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, government ministers, like all public office holders, are supposed to adhere to the Nolan principles, seven Pollyanna-ish precepts that ministers are meant to hold in some esteem. Chief among them is the idea that they should be selfless, “acting solely in terms of the public interest”, while also showing integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, leadership and honesty to boot.
The ministerial code further instructs them to be “professional in all their dealings” and to have “proper and appropriate?.?.?.?working relationships”. Hancock clearly failed to tick those boxes. And yet despite the censure that surrounded his exposure, I was surprised by how many people considered his romantic indiscretion to be an adjacent issue that should have no bearing on his competence at work.
It’s a strange time in which to embark on an extramarital adventure. While the sexual revolution has found us more licentious, trying to have an affair is actually far more complicated than it might seem. Dating apps and technology have made casual sex readily available but, as Hancock discovered, surveillance cameras and social media can leave one frightfully exposed. The camera phone has turned everyone into a paparazzo; a fruity text exchange on the dating app Raya can go viral if it gets into the wrong hands. Technology may have liberated us, but it has simultaneously made our lives transparent. It’s hard to be clandestine when your partner can track your every movement on their phone.
Do our leaders have a responsibility to instil in us some moral vigour? As UK politics becomes mired in scandal, cronyism and corruption, one wonders whether we’re all being smeared in Tory sleaze. And perhaps it’s inevitable that infidelity is spiking when the culture has been stoked by a prime minister whose own career has been embellished by priapic lusts.
In May, we saw Boris Johnson marrying Carrie Symonds in a Roman Catholic ceremony at Westminster Cathedral, the first wedding to be undertaken by a prime minister while in office since 1822. This curiously awkward pantomime, in which Symonds was pictured barefoot next to her new husband, wearing a white dress inspired by “ancient Greek philosophy” and a flower crown, led one Twitter commentator to observe that the couple recalled a teenage schoolgirl being dropped off at the Coachella festival by her dad. Symonds’ relationship with Johnson reportedly began when he was married to Marina Wheeler, and she was the Conservatives’ head of communications.
No wonder everybody’s at it. Unfaithfulness is this year’s hottest trend. Hancock must have assumed that his career would also be Teflon-coated. When the prime minister can only manage a glancing acknowledgment of the moral code of which he is supposed to be an exemplar, the lack of rectitude is bound to trickle down.
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