The GuardianThe Guardian

Don’t call it sleaze, call it corruption – why scandal haunts Boris Johnson’s government

By Jonathan Freedland

16 Dec 2021 · 18 min read

Think of bonking. Not the activity, but the word. As a shorthand for sex, it was popularised, if not invented, by the tabloid press in the 90s – back then, “Bonking Boris” referred to a former Wimbledon champion rather than a future prime minister. You can see why it appealed. “Bonking” slipped easily under the bar prohibiting expletives in family newspapers; it sounded fun rather than pornographic. It was clear and direct, yet had all the advantages of euphemism.

Now think of sleaze. As it happens, that word performed a similar role in the same period. It could be hurled at politicians – specifically the Conservative government of John Major – relatively free of legal risk. You could say an MP or minister was “mired in sleaze” without having to prove that they had broken a specific law. It was handy.

Sign in to informed

  • Curated articles from premium publishers, ad-free
  • Concise Daily Briefs with quick-read summaries
  • Read, listen, save for later, or enjoy offline
  • Enjoy personalized content