CLAIMS that Boris Johnson groped the leg of Sunday Times journalist Charlotte Edwardes overshadowed the beginning of the Conservative Party conference this week. Edwardes wrote in her column that during a private lunch in 1999, Johnson grabbed “enough inner flesh beneath his fingers’’ as to make her “sit upright’.

After initially declining to comment, a No 10 spokesperson eventually issued a response saying: “The allegations are untrue.’’

As his colleagues took to the airwaves to stand by their man, you got the sense that their hearts weren’t really in it. There was no spirited defence to be found, perhaps because Johnson’s allies have grown weary with how often they are called to give one.

Sajid Javid said it would be inappropriate to comment before commenting that Johnson had assured him that the allegations were false and stating that he believed him. Boris Johnson’s former advisor Kulveer Ranger said that Johnson’s personal life was his business, and he wouldn’t comment on it. While John Redwood was standing ready with the trusty fall-back defence: “We all know he has had a colourful life.’’

Boris Johnson is a politician inured from his indiscretions by virtue of the fact he is well known for them. The sanitising descriptor “colourful private life’’ could have been invented for the purpose of sparing Mr Johnson’s blushes.

While we are often told that his chequered past makes him a man of the people, those who defend him are curiously reticent to dwell on the details. Those glossed-over details include numerous extra-marital affairs, an indeterminate number of children and being sacked for lying.

As various high-profile men lined up to state that they believed Johnson’s word over that of Charlotte Edwardes, it appeared as though they were just going through the motions.

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Where was the anger on the prime minister’s behalf and the exclamations about his exemplary good character and reliability of his word? It wasn’t to be found, because Boris Johnson has a track record of lying.

We have many euphemisms for that too. He often misspeaks and says things that were certainly not his intention. He must be the unluckiest politician in the world, such is the frequency with which his words are “taken out of context’’ and “misconstrued’’.

So, when a woman recounts a night where the now-prime minister touches her without her consent and he responds by labelling her accusation as untrue and without foundation, his defenders have their work cut out.

Despite this, the thigh-grabbing allegations won’t trouble Boris Johnson too much. Far more concerning for Number 10 will be the questions about his “close friendship’’ with tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri and whether he used his influence as Mayor of London to help secure funding for her business.

Because they know - and we know - that non-consensual touching won’t provoke as much public anger as the suggestion that tax-payers’ money might have been used improperly.

The naked partisanship on display whenever we see women making allegations about powerful men in politics are as predictable as they are distasteful.

The warm words and grave expressions that we saw in the wake of the Westminster harassment scandal have been replaced – as many women at the time predicted they would be – with knee-jerk politicking and spin.

The power dynamics which underpin these tales of impropriety and sexism are cast to one side as political parties close ranks to protect one of their own. Sexual harassment is only a problem fit to be discussed and tackled when it’s a man from another party who is said to have behaved badly towards women.

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During a radio interview on Monday, interim Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw described the allegations against Mr Johnson as “a distraction from the very, very substantive matter of on what basis we should leave the European Union.’’

Jackson Carlaw’s blithe dismissal of Charlotte Edwardes’ claims may have been ill-judged, but it came as no surprise.

Issues that affect predominantly women are often subject to the ‘But what about…’ defence. They are painted as a distraction from bigger, more important issues. Not least when it is male politicians that are under the spotlight.

You see, it’s not that they don’t care about the safety and dignity of women, it’s just that there are so many other things to be getting on with. Like Brexit, or tackling the housing crisis, or running a scandal-free Tory leadership contest. Because we know it’s impossible to care about more than one thing at a time. Perhaps that is why we have seen a single-issue government devoid of any domestic agenda for the last three years.

And on those rare occasions when the focus is on the scale and scope of the mistreatment of women (as we saw during the MeToo campaign) , ‘But what about…’ is still used to distract and minimise.

It’s a phenomenon that says unwanted touching isn’t important because it’s not as bad as being raped. On and on it goes and there is always something else. The opportune moment for tackling women’s inequality of safety never quite arrives.

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Of course, everybody is entitled to a private life. Even politicians. But what we’re talking about here isn’t infidelity or a feckless approach to parenting – it’s an allegation about non-consensual groping by a powerful man. Whether it was alleged to have happened 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago wouldn’t make any difference to those blinded by partisanship.

I’d have more respect for Boris Johnson’s foot soldiers if they were straight with us about their motivations and didn’t try to pass off misguided loyalty for belief in the integrity of the man they’d been sent out to defend.

Each Johnson defender may have used a different formulation of words, but the meaning and subtext was clear. Investigating claims about sexual harassment against women is too politically inconvenient when it involves one of your own.

For as long as political parties of all colours maintain this brazen disregard for women, they will struggle to be believed when they insist they will confront the men who abuse power within their ranks.