I’m writing this from the Conservative party conference where Boris’s attempt to ram home the message that he’s the only party leader capable of getting Brexit done is being drowned out by the claim by Charlotte Edwardes, a Sunday Times columnist, that he squeezed her thigh under the table at a Spectator lunch 20 years ago. In the #MeToo era, this is a bigger news story than our imminent departure from the EU. Or perhaps just a blessed respite from the relentless Brexit coverage.
I didn’t help by making a throwaway gag on Monday at a fringe meeting organised by the TaxPayers’ Alliance where I was a panellist. A blue rinse in the audience said she’d been groped by an older man two decades ago and asked the panel if we thought she needed psychological counselling. That got a big laugh and I responded by telling her that things were a lot more relaxed in the late 1990s: ‘Back then at The Spectator, in those raucous days, people complained if Boris didn’t put his hand on their knee.’
That, too, got a laugh and it was clearly a joke, not a statement of fact. But a beady-eyed hack at the back of the room started scribbling in his notepad and about an hour later I was trending on Twitter. For those unfamiliar with the po-faced digital outrage machine, that means more people in the UK were tweeting about me than any other topic.
‘Toby Young defends Boris Johnson by boasting about the sexist culture that existed under his editorship of The Spectator,’ fumed Labour MP David Lammy. ‘This crowd should be nowhere near power, let alone in No. 10.’ Aaron Bastani, a Corbynista who works for a communist website, went even further. Above the report of my comment, he tweeted: ‘Here’s Toby Young explaining Johnson’s actions by… admitting there was a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and assault at The Spectator.’
Pervasive sexual harassment and assault?!? Yeah, Aaron, that’s exactly what I said. It was a bloody joke, for Pete’s sake. But since the Boris-haters are using what I said to pretend to be offended on behalf of his ‘victims’, let me be clear. I worked for Boris at The Spectator for the five years he was editor and attended several lunches and lots of parties at the magazine’s offices and never once did I witness Boris putting his hand an anyone’s knee or thigh or any other part of their anatomy apart from their shoulders. Nor did I ever hear any reports of him doing so. He was not a groper.
For some of that period he was having an affair with Petronella Wyatt, the deputy editor, and Lloyd Evans and I wrote a farce called Who’s the Daddy? about that and other sex scandals to beset the magazine in 2004. We depicted Boris as an inveterate shagger and at the end the female publisher gives birth to three blonde triplets. But we made nearly all of it up. Although, having said that, Lloyd came up with an interesting idea this week. We revive the play, but in order to avoid the deluge of negative reviews by male theatre critics anxious to prove they’re ‘allies’ of women and other oppressed groups, we make Charlotte Edwardes a co-author and bill it as a drama-documentary about white privilege and misogyny in a heteronormative work environment told by eye-witnesses and survivors. It would probably run for longer than The Mousetrap.
Seriously, though. The sheer amount of confected righteous indignation generated by Boris’s opponents, whether on the opposition benches or in the Newsnight studio, is staggering. I’m not defending sexual harassment — if Boris did grab Charlotte’s thigh, that was wrong. But, surely, he should be extended the presumption of innocence? He has issued a strong denial, breaking his usual rule of not commenting on private matters, and I’m inclined to believe him.
I’ve known Charlotte for 25 years and like her very much and I genuinely don’t think she’d lie about something like this. As anyone who’s done jury service knows, memory is notoriously unreliable. People can’t accurately recall what they did last month, let alone 20 years ago. There’s a huge volume of psychological literature about this. In the absence of corroborating witnesses, we should move on to discussing more important things, like the biggest political crisis in Britain’s history since Suez. Boris has a plan to get us out of this mess. We should let him get on with it.