Article updated 02.07.22 to add the information about the MP who allegedly burst in on Boris Johnson and his then-girlfriend Carrie Symonds.
On 29 June, Private Eye published a report that concerned allegations that Boris Johnson was caught having oral sex with Carrie Symonds (as she was then) in his office when he was foreign secretary in 2018. Private Eye maintains in the article that the removal of the report of Johnson seeking to employ Symonds as his chief of staff from the Times newspaper was because Symonds was concerned that the more salacious details of her relationship with Johnson would be revealed.
“The Friday night attack of the ab-dabs was caused by a baseless fear that the Times might be more specific about the compromising situation [those of a timid disposition should look away now] by adding that the MP walked in while Carrie was giving Boris oral sex on the sofa.”
The MP in question is Conor Burns, or so he claims. He says he found them having a glass of wine and nothing more, though doesn’t confirm whether this relates to the Private Eye story. So we’re far from knowing the truth about this affair. Assuming for a minute that the original story is true – what would be the implications?
In most workplaces, being caught having sex while on duty would result in instant dismissal, but Johnson’s government seems to be untouched by the employment norms and standards that apply to everyone else and there is nothing in the ministerial code that debars him from pursuing his sexual proclivities in the workplace. However, it may constitute misconduct in public office.
Sexually inappropriate behaviour leading to “misjudgement”
Misconduct in public office is a common law offence (it is not enshrined in law) and so its breach is often determined by precedent. Having sex in the office does not necessarily constitute misconduct but may do so under certain circumstances. It may constitute a breach if there is a power differential and the person providing sex is dependent on the decision of the person holding public office, or the person providing sex is in a vulnerable position, such as the victim of crime.
There are two categories which may be relevant in Johnson’s case. The first is, if the (consensual) sex “renders the public office holder vulnerable to misjudgement”. Case law indicates that this has mainly been applied when there is a relationship between a public officer and a ‘client’ such as between a prison officer and prisoner that has implications for good order and discipline of the prisoner and rest of the prison or wing population.
As Symonds was not made Johnson’s chief of staff this may not be applicable, but the very fact of him asking for preferment may be indicative of the relationship leading to a “misjudgement”. Employing Symonds, in any capacity given the relationship, would have been explicitly barred in the ministerial code (even in Johnson’s new watered-down code) and there is no doubt that, had she been made his chief of staff, good order and discipline within the foreign office may have been under threat.
Sex on duty
The other relevant category is when the sex occurs while the public official is “on duty … the concern is the dereliction of duty/unprofessionalism that attends the conduct, and that it could be seen to undermine public trust in the office holder. For example, a government security officer engaging in sexual conduct while they are meant to be providing security to a secure government building”.
Johnson’s behaviour occurred in his office when he was foreign minister. He was interrupted by a colleague wishing to discuss work with him. He could have easily been interrupted by any number of other foreign office officials or government staff.
The response of those unwillingly being exposed, in their place of work, to Johnson having sex would vary according to their position and power, and their relationship with Johnson. They might use the incident as ‘kompromat’. It might undermine the trust in the working relationship, or, for more junior and female staff members, it might be experienced as a form of sexual harassment.
Maybe this is something else the Metropolitan Police can add to their Westminster investigation caseload, or perhaps it’s one for the parliamentary standards commissioner. Let’s hope for their sake there’s no photographic evidence.