It was only a matter of time before someone really twisted the knife in and compared Boris ‘partygate’ Johnson to Silvio ‘Bunga Bunga’ Berlusconi. Rory Stewart, who is now an ex Tory and was rejected in the leadership contest won by Boris, has done just that. The British Prime Minister’s sins, he claims, make Britain feel like ‘Berlusconi’s Italy’.
Sorry Rory: no they don’t. The truth is that compared to Berlusconi, Boris is as pure as the driven snow. Yes, BoJo may once have invented a quote in an article for the Times, and he is all too often economical with the actualité on money and much else besides. But he has never been charged, let alone convicted, of a criminal offence, as far as we know.
Il Cavaliere (The Knight), as his supporters call him, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. The media tycoon and three-time Italian prime minister has been under near constant investigation, or on trial, for nearly three decades for, among other things: abuse of office, bribery and corruption of police officers, judges and witnesses, connections to the Mafia, embezzlement, extortion, false accounting, money laundering, perjury, tax fraud, and underage prostitution.
As for Boris, the closest he has come to a criminal trial, let alone record, is the £50 fixed penalty notice he received in April for flouting his own Covid lockdown rules by attending a birthday party in his honour at Number 10 in June 2020. But however politically and morally suicidal breaking those rules was, a fixed penalty notice is not a criminal conviction. Yet worldly-wise Stewart would have us believe that Boris is Britain’s Berlusconi. Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain last week he said:
‘One of his tricks is that he makes everything seem small.(…) there are hundreds of these things and every time it’s: ‘Oh just some small thing’, just one party, one cake, one leaving party, one prorogation of parliament, one lobbying scandal, one wallpaper problem, but they mount up to make our country feel like Berlusconi’s Italy.’
Come off it, Rory! A hurried Union Jack themed sponge cake and a can of beer in an office is hardly scantily-clad young women swinging from the chandeliers and queuing up to kiss a statue of the minor fertility God Priapus complete with erect penis Bunga Bunga style, is it?
Yes, Berlusconi has always proclaimed his innocence. He has insisted that, ever since he became a politician in 1994, he has been the victim of a judicial witch hunt which, he estimates, has involved his appearance in thousands of court hearings and him paying lawyers hundreds of millions of euros to defend himself. And yes, it’s true that Berlusconi has only been convicted once: for tax fraud in 2012, for which he received a four year jail sentence, commuted to a year’s community service in a care home, and a five year ban from politics.
Indeed, it is difficult not to believe that the toghe rosse (‘red gowns’, as Italy’s judges are known) have been out to get him. Millions of Italians agree: he holds the record as the most voted for Italian politician ever, and as soon as his political ban ended, he returned to front line politics as if nothing had happened. That surely would be impossible in Britain. But he avoided scrutiny in several other criminal cases because the proceedings exceeded the statute of limitations.
Turning to sins of the strictly sexual kind, there can be absolutely no doubt that, despite the odd mistress, Boris is a nun-like novice compared with Silvio the satyromaniac. The Bunga Bunga scandal broke in 2010 when he was prime minister for the last time. Combined with the euro crisis, this brought Italy to the brink of abandoning the single currency and ultimately forced his resignation in November 2011. The scandal revealed the lengths to which Il Cavaliere was prepared to go to satisfy his obsession with hooking up with women young enough to be his grandchildren.
Even though he was a prostate cancer survivor at the time and already in his mid-seventies he was far from impotent thanks to la pillola blu (viagra), la puntura intracavernosa (the penile injection) and even, it was said in jest, la piccola gru (the little crane).
His Bunga Bunga parties led to yet more trials for Il Cavaliere. In 2014, he was acquitted on appeal of paying for underage sex with one of the guests: a 17-year-old Moroccan belly-dancer called Ruby the Heart-Stealer.
A second trial, at which he is accused of bribing the Heart Stealer and 25 other young women guests – described by the prosecuting magistrate as ‘odalisks offered up to the sultan’ – with more than 10 million euros (£8.5 million), has so far lasted eight years but is expected to end this autumn.
It is inconceivable that a British prime minister would organise such parties, involving gangs of near-naked women, sometimes dressed as nuns, nurses and police officers, cavorting about after dinner in a disco room – nicknamed the Bunga Bunga room – before disappearing off to make the beast with two backs with you know who.
It is even more inconceivable that once such parties became public knowledge a British prime minister could ever again participate in front line politics. In Britain, an MP is forced to resign because he is seen looking at porn on his mobile phone. Yet in Italy, Berlusconi, who describes his parties as ‘elegant soirées’, carries on as leader of Forza Italia, the political party he founded, as if neither Bunga Bunga, nor any of his many other trials, had ever happened.
As for our Boris, I would bet that the closest he has ever got to a Bunga Bunga party was when, as Mayor of London, he visited his blonde bombshell American friend, Jennifer Arcuri, in her Shoreditch flat where she had installed a dancing pole.
Embedded in the Italian inferno as I am near Ravenna where Dante, exiled from Florence, died in 1321, I try to picture the poet’s nine circles of Hell and to work out which circle Boris and Silvio will end up in. But I cannot. I am, however, almost certain that Berlusconi is destined for a far more unpleasant circle than Boris because his sins, like his parties, are so much more spectacular.
When Boris and I interviewed Berlusconi at his summer palace in Sardinia in 2003, I suggested that Berlusconi was like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby in relation to all those who gathered around him, but that he, unlike them, nevertheless retained a pure and noble ambition. As the narrator Nick Carraway tells Gatsby at the end of the novel: ‘They’re a rotten crowd… You’re better than the whole damn bunch put together.’ Boris agreed.
Naturally, I could never compare Boris to the Great Gatsby.
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