No wonder deception drags Boris Johnson under – he’s not even a good liar | Simon Jenkins
HI lied. He clearly lied. But then what? As Boris Johnson clings by the fingertips, we wait to see who will trample them. The answer is presumably Sue Gray, at whose mercy he has desperately surrendered his fate. Surely nothing she says can save him. It is not his guilt that is in question, only his punishment.
Johnson can plead that he was “notified” that the office parties were within the rules. He may protest that they were ‘implicitly’ linked to work, but with yet more Downing Street party revelations on the front page today, the Downing Street edifice of concealment and deceit is crumbling under the eyes of voters. In that uniquely British political theatre, the House of Commons, the Prime Minister was subjected on Wednesday to the closest democracy to medieval trial by ordeal. MPs have abandoned any dignity, nuance, sympathy or sense of proportion. They happily shouted, mocked and hurled insults until they were hoarse with rage. When in the mood, parliament does not speak the truth to power: it shouts in its face.
The Prime Minister’s unhappy relationship with the truth is old and ingrained in his character. Truthfulness is eclipsed by ego. Most of his recent catalog of woes – Brexit promises, dodgy peerages, sleazy colleagues, flat decorations, lockdown parties – could have been assuaged if Johnson had simply been clear from the start, sounded candid and apologized . He seems psychologically unable to disentangle the false from the half-truth. A life spent in bland denials and high-end jokes gave him a high-risk belief in his invulnerability. From each laughable lie, he could, with a leap, emancipate himself.
The champions of political lying do much of its role in democratic leadership. In his study of political hypocrisy, David Runciman argues that false sincerity, false promises and fabrication of evidence are tools that have always been at the heart of power. He cites leaders from Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Jefferson to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The last fought the war in Iraq on a lie. Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying has Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, as a virtual hero, with his boss plunging into constant depths of lies. Yet Blair has won three elections.
Party manifestos are called “books of lies”. Some would argue that Johnson won the Brexit referendum on the “big lie” of his economic gains, which worked to his advantage in the 2019 election. Runciman argues that democracy requires a degree of cynicism to fuel his optimism, his promise of eternal hope, without which no one would ever vote for a politician. Politics thus becomes a mutual conspiracy of lies. As Orwell wrote, “Political language…is designed to make the lies sound true and the murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to the pure wind.”
Johnson’s problem was not his lie but his inability to deal with it, especially when it was discovered. He doesn’t have a spin doctor and had to admit on Wednesday that he had to shoot A&E. His belief that an attractive, “authentic” personality could make up for a rotten command structure and third-class aides blew up on him.
Its critics might agree that governing a pandemic would be a titanic test for even the most experienced leaders, requiring superhuman skills of authority and persuasion, an ability to appeal to an unprecedented degree of public trust. But this is one more reason not to jeopardize this trust. The Prime Minister has had some successes including vaccination and the current resistance to the lockdown.
But those successes have been overwhelmed by one fiasco after another, leading to a widespread judgment that he is “not fit for the job”, not up to the task, a charge never leveled against Blair. A BBC vox pop on Wednesday night was brutal: “I may like it, but enough is enough.”
Johnson attempted to merge Alexis de Tocqueville’s distinction between British club democracy and American mob democracy. His appeal to the conservative club lies exclusively in his popularity with the mafia. He won the elections as a populist. It is conceivable that a newly chastised and apologetic Johnson could try to force his way back into favor, in the hope that the 10 percentage points currently separating Labor from the Tories in the polls could be reversed. The members of the club could then hold their noses and give him another chance.
As things stand, such a surge in the polls seems highly unlikely, which is why Keir Starmer is certainly unwise to call for the Prime Minister’s resignation. He should pray that he limps. For Johnson, an ominous parallel is the ruthless ousting of Thatcher by the Conservative Party in 1990. He cleaned the Downing Street stables of poll tax toxin and went on under John Major to win a fourth consecutive election in 1992 .
If, as seems likely, Johnson’s days as a politician are now numbered, Britain’s brief foray into populist politics will be over. The moral of the story will be modest: that journalists, for all their vanity, should not be tempted to give up their daily work.