LONDON — British women may not be convinced by Boris.
If Boris Johnson fails to win a majority in the U.K.’s general election on December 12, many may look to his unpopularity among women for an explanation.
While the Conservatives have consistently led the polls, the contest is still unpredictable, with one pollster, Datapraxis boss Paul Hilder, telling Reuters he had never seen so many undecided votes so late in a campaign.
British women are more likely than men not to have made up their mind, according to YouGov’s political research manager Chris Curtis, and so are less likely to show up in polling. They are just as likely as men to vote, however.
Of those whose views are captured by polls, women are, on average, less sold on the prime minister. Just 38 percent of women have a favorable view of Johnson, according to the most recent YouGov findings, compared to 46 percent of men.
“The more affluent people are, the more they seem to have a problem with Boris — particularly women” — Senior minister
“The data has consistently shown that Boris Johnson does not poll as well amongst women as he does amongst men,” according to Curtis.
While much is made in Westminster of the prime minister’s personal style and alleged sexism, Curtis also pointed to Brexit as part of the reason for the gender divide.
Curtis suggested the gap could be partly down to the fact that women are more likely than men to oppose a no-deal Brexit. “But there also seems to be something about Boris that women, particularly younger women, just aren’t warming to,” he said.
On the campaign trail, Conservative candidates report a mixed picture.
“The more affluent people are, the more they seem to have a problem with Boris — particularly women,” said one senior minister. “In more deprived Brexit-voting areas they love him, it is more of an issue in places like Kensington [in London].”
“Ultimately even those with an issue are putting him up against [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn,” the minister said. “He is lucky, it would be more of a problem if he was facing someone else.”
Since winning the leadership of his party and taking office as prime minister in July, Johnson has repeatedly been accused of using sexist language.
These incidents may have damaged Johnson’s standing among some female voters, according to Rosie Campbell, professor of politics at King’s College, London. “He thinks it’s just a joke. But then you see women walking around in city centers with bags with ‘girly swot’ written on them.”
Campbell likened Johnson’s style to that of Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who is also unpopular among women. “The kind of populist approach to politics that we’ve seen on the right in Europe and in the U.S. does tend to be more popular with men,” she said.
There is little evidence, however, to demonstrate definitively whether this kind of political row cuts through to the wider electorate.
“The first lady I spoke to said, ‘You are a very good MP but we don’t like your leader’” — Conservative MP in the West Midlands
Two Tory campaigners cited Johnson’s macho style and said middle class women in particular seemed to be turning away from the party in favor of the Liberal Democrats.
One Conservative campaigning to retain their West Midlands seat noted last weekend that “there was quite a lot of antipathy to Boris particularly among women” on the doorstep.
“The first lady I spoke to said, ‘You are a very good MP but we don’t like your leader,’” they recounted. “I said: “He’s not standing here — you have got me.’ It’s probably because they think he is a bit untrustworthy, and for a certain sort of woman he is not enormously attractive.”
Other Conservative campaigners said they had not noticed a gender split. One female Tory candidate fighting to win a tight race in the Brexit-supporting North said: “I heard people mention that in other seats that he’s not going down well with women, but here I haven’t noticed it at all.”
Two female Tory candidates — one in East Anglia and one in the South West — acknowledged that Johnson was “marmite” to voters, in reference to the condiment’s famous tag-line: “You either love it or you hate it.” But both also dismissed the idea that more women opposed him. They argued that divisive as Johnson is, Corbyn provokes far greater animosity among members of the public.
Fleur Butler, who chairs the Conservative Women’s Organisation, said she raised concerns that female voters were turning away from the party after the 2017 election, while Theresa May was still leader.
“It wasn’t a youthquake. It was more like a women walk-out,” she said of the result. “But I hope that Boris has listened to the concern about the loss of the votes of women of working age, and I’m interested to see whether this plays out in the analysis of the election result.”
Butler added: “Boris genuinely understands women when you talk to him personally, and is keen to explore what issues they might have with a keen understanding of the need for equality and empowerment.”
The Conservative party said Johnson has a long record of promoting policies that help women, including funding to support girls’ education around the world and strategies to eliminate violence against women and female genital mutilation, when he was mayor of London.
Not their style
Several women who have worked with the prime minister describe him as “blokey” and “laddish.” Others accuse him of failing to take female colleagues seriously.
“There are issues with his laddish approach to women,” one senior Tory woman said. “He genuinely likes women, he enjoys their company. Perhaps he likes them a little bit too much.”
“That is a role model issue for perhaps some of the men in his party, to also dismiss us as not to be taken equally,” she added. “If you’ve always got sexual attraction raising its head, you’re not going to be judged in terms of how hard you work.”
Former Tory MP Anne Milton, who was kicked out of the Tory party over Brexit and is now running as an independent, said on BBC Newsnight last month that women “disproportionately” dislike the prime minister and his “dogwhistle, strong blokeish” approach to politics. “It’s just not their style.”
“I remember her telling me it was always excruciating — she wasn’t his type. So he just didn’t bother speaking” — Sonia Purnell, biographer describing a conversation with a female Johnson aide
Antoinette Sandbach, the former Tory MP for Eddisbury who quit her party for the Liberal Democrats in September, agreed that Johnson’s “laddish” approach had contributed to a “Trumpization of British politics.”
Sonia Purnell, a biographer of Johnson’s who deputized for him when he was Brussels bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph, said: “I saw up close that he really does not respect women in the workplace. He really can’t deal with women who are on an equal status, let alone in a superior one.”
She recounts a conversation with a female political aide of Johnson’s who had been given the job of driving him around during an election campaign. “I remember her telling me it was always excruciating — she wasn’t his type. So he just didn’t bother speaking. Every car journey, she’d try and make conversation but he’d effectively not answer because she wasn’t of interest to him.”
The Conservatives point to Johnson’s record of hiring women in senior positions. “The prime minister has championed women and women’s issues passionately throughout his political career. His top team at city hall [when he was London mayor] consisted of around 50 percent women and his Cabinet is the most diverse there has ever been,” a spokesperson for the party said.
The Conservative party manifesto for this election was written by two women — Munira Mirza and Rachel Wolf — and includes a raft of positive policies designed to help and support women. These include an expansion of start-up loans which have a particularly high take up from female entrepreneurs, a pledge to pass the Domestic Abuse Bill, and a commitment to scrap the unfair tampon tax when we leave the EU,” the spokesperson said.
Among MPs, the prime minister has drawn approbation for the way he has dealt with concerns about abuse directed at female politicians.
Johnson’s critics say he has not taken the issue seriously enough, and that his own inflammatory rhetoric normalizes the use of threatening language toward MPs. “It is his language and conduct that have given people the permission to act in this way,” Sandbach said.
During an ill-tempered House of Commons debate, he dismissed as “humbug” an impassioned speech by Labour MP Paula Sherriff, who called on him to moderate his language.
Sandbach said she thought the way Johnson spoke to Sheriff was “disgraceful.” “All the evidence in Westminster is that women get more abuse,” she said.
Anne Jenkin, who co-founded the group Women2Win alongside Theresa May to get more Conservative women to stand for election, said she was “absolutely sure” the barrage of abuse MPs receive “is a deterrent to women coming forward in the first place.”
“If you’re weighing up the pros and cons — which women do quite carefully — they can see plenty of cons but they don’t see very many pros,” she said.
Jenkin runs a WhatsApp group for women who are standing to be Tory MPs, and says it buzzes “pretty much daily” with messages from women seeking support in dealing with abuse. “My concern is that it puts off another whole generation coming forward.”
However, a Conservative spokesperson said Johnson was a champion of female candidates. “The prime minister will build on the strong record he has. He is proud of the real progress that has been made in boosting the voice of women inside the Conservative party, but he thinks we must go much further. That is why it is our ambition to ensure that half of Conservative candidates on our list for future elections are women.”
“The party has also recruited 194 female candidates at this election [out of a total of 635 seats the party is contesting], and more than 40 percent of Conservative candidates standing in retirement seats have been filled by women,” the spokesperson said.
The prime minister made history this year by becoming the first person to move into Downing Street with an unmarried partner, Carrie Symonds.
Words on women
Those wishing to cast the prime minister as sexist point to his past newspaper articles.
In a 1995 Spectator column, unearthed by Labour two weeks before polling day, Johnson, the magazine’s former editor, decried the “appalling proliferation of single mothers” and described their children as “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate.” In a farewell piece marking his exit as editor of the magazine 10 years later, Johnson joked that the way to deal with advice from a female colleague is to “just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way.”
Much has also been written about what the prime minister’s colorful personal life suggests about his relationship with women.
The prime minister made history this year by becoming the first person to move into Downing Street with an unmarried partner, Carrie Symonds. His relationship with Symonds follows an acrimonious split with his second wife Marina Wheeler, who had stayed with him since 1998 despite repeated allegations he had affairs.
Johnson has repeatedly refused to answer questions about his private life, stating he doesn’t want to drag his family into politics.
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Since entering No. 10,he has also faced allegations of groping and failing to declare a conflict of interest.
The Sunday Times columnist Charlotte Edwardes caused a stir when she wrote two months ago that Johnson groped her under the table at a lunch in the 1990s. “His hand is high up my leg and he has enough inner flesh beneath his fingers to make me sit suddenly upright,” she recounted. Johnson denied the allegation.
Meanwhile, he has faced questions about an alleged affair with American entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, whose start-up business benefited from thousands of pounds in government grants. Johnson denies any impropriety. The relationship is now the subject of ongoing investigations by the London Assembly and the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
Exasperatingly for Johnson’s opponents however, the mud never seems to stick.
A Tory activist said people on the campaign trail seem willing to forgive Johnson’s personal misdemeanors. “If another love child suddenly emerged in the week before the election, people probably wouldn’t blink — it is priced in.”
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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