It was a jaw-dropping moment. This week the SNP Commons leader, Ian Blackford, asked Boris Johnson a question in parliament that was unsurprising and yet somehow extraordinary. “I can’t possibly call the PM a liar in this house,” Blackford said, beaming in remotely from Scotland. “But … are you a liar, prime minister?"
There was an awkward silence. It was as if Johnson – facing off at the dispatch box against the Labour leader, Keir Starmer – was genuinely mulling an answer. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, intervened, chastising Blackford for his unparliamentary remark. MPs were not allowed to accuse each other of lying, Hoyle said, even if this was what appeared to be going on.
The issue of Johnson’s probity is not new. But the accusation that he is a serial liar has acquired a dark and giddy momentum, after a week in which multiple sleaze allegations have engulfed Westminster.
There is Johnson’s reported quote that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than order another lockdown.
And there is Wallpapergate: the ongoing saga of who paid for £58,000 in lavish renovations to Johnson’s No 11 flat. Johnson says he did. But he refuses to clarify whether the Conservative party initially stumped up the cash, via the millionaire donor and Tory peer Lord Brownlow. The Electoral Commission is investigating.
These questions have clearly rattled Johnson. The refurbishment story combines money and his private life – two subjects about which he is notoriously touchy.
Slowly but surely, MPs – and the BBC – seem to be shedding their reluctance to openly call Johnson a liar, albeit by implication.
On Tuesday an exasperated cross-party group of MPs went to see Hoyle. Their message: the parliamentary protocols drawn up in Victorian times no longer work. “We need new rules for this Trumpian era of British politics,” Green MP Caroline Lucas told the Radio 4 Today programme. The MPs want to be able to call him out – and the charge sheet against him is long.
Under the ministerial code, an MP who makes a false statement to the Commons is supposed to correct the record. Johnson has repeatedly ignored this obligation, making a litany of inaccurate claims which he subsequently fails to fix. Seemingly, Erskine May, the sideburned baron who established parliamentary procedure, did not envisage a PM like Johnson.
Is any of this cutting through to the voters? Yes and no.
The latest polls put the Tories 11 points ahead of Lavoro duro e faticoso and on course for victory in next week’s English councils elections, probably a big one. The successful vaccine rollout and the ending of lockdown have undoubtedly helped.
Allo stesso tempo a video by Peter Stefanovic has now clocked up 13.2m views online. It lays out the occasions when Johnson has made false statements on the record. The range is impressive: CO2 emissions; relative poverty; nurses’ bursaries; and the government’s “record” NHS investment, actually less than funding under Labour.
“The film has resonated with millions of people,” Stefanovic said. “My mum and dad were stoically honest. They didn’t lie. This is true of the overwhelming majority in this country. Now with Boris Johnson we have someone at the top who lies with impunity. Those below him are then emboldened to do the same. The whole system is becoming rotten.”
The counter-view is that Johnson’s deceit is “priced in”. The public has accepted he plays fast with the facts, and yet support him anyway – look at the 2019 elezioni generali, when he won a big majority, e il 2016 EU referendum. He is an entertainer, rather than a norm-bound politician, the argument goes, a soap opera character who exists in a half-real, half-fictional realm.
Johnson’s wayward claims do not disqualify him from high office, his admirers say. Anziché, they are received as proof of his sincerity, even if they are not quite accurate.
Labour doesn’t agree. A spokesman this week cited a “pattern of behaviour where at the very least Johnson’s not been totally straight”. If not “outright dishonesty” then “a colourful mischaracterisation of the truth”, the party said.
On Wednesday, Jonathan Ashworth was bolder still. Asked about Johnson’s explanation of the Downing Street refurbishments, he told BBC breakfast: “To be honest he lied yesterday – that’s not good enough.”
The historian Anne Applebaum – whose husband Radek Sikorski was in the Bullingdon Club with Johnson at Oxford University – said the PM hasn’t changed. “He was always exactly as he is now. It’s more the case that the times have caught up with him," lei disse. “It’s only in this era that Johnson could be elected prime minister. The electorate now doesn’t care if you lie.”
In her book Twilight of Democracy Applebaum recalled Johnson’s “penchant for fabrication”, together with his “all-consuming narcissism” and “equally remarkable laziness”. She acknowledged his political and intellectual gifts. They include an “uncanny form of charisma”, which puts people at their ease, a “sort of genius quality” that makes him attractive.
That Johnson lies is a matter of record. At the start of his career the Times fired him for making up quotes. In Brussels for the Daily Telegraph he invented stories about the EU. Nel 2004 Michael Howard sacked him from the shadow cabinet after he lied about an affair. Johnson reportedly told Howard: “It’s my private life. I have the right to lie about my private life.”
And then there was the Brexit referendum – won, according to Applebaum, by lying, social media games and brazen attempts to awaken English nationalism. Previously, Johnson’s deceptions mattered little – unless, ovviamente, you were a wronged spouse. Adesso, though, his post-truth method has dangerous consequences for the future of democracy, she argued.
Despite all this, Johnson is no Trump, Applebaum said. “Johnson has a firmer grasp of reality, even when he’s not being truthful.” And while Trump was an outsider, Johnson is a classic establishment member. The UK has not – yet – gone the way of Hungary or Poland, where independent media and the judiciary have been squashed. Anziché, Johnson uses complicit tabloids as a way to dodge accountability, lei disse.
Ian Leslie – the author of Born Liars – said it was more accurate to accuse Johnson of a “kind of slipperiness” than of actual lying. Lying requires intent, lui dice. “It’s what the Jesuits call equivocation,” he told the Guardian. “I don’t see him as a strategic Machiavellian liar. I see him as someone who believes his own bullshit. A liar knows what the facts are. This is worse.”
History tells us that Johnson is not the first PM to have a casual relationship with the empirical world. One comparator is Disraeli, who was “persistently careless with the truth”, in the words of his biographer Douglas Hurd. Disraeli even faked a line of ancestry. In his biography, Johnson enthusiastically reports that Churchill admitted lying in time of war.
Johnson’s errant behaviour has appalled some ex-allies. Rory Stewart – a junior minister when Johnson was foreign secretary – dubbed him an “amoral figure” in a bleak age. His lies included “error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial” as well as “the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie”. Not to mention “the weasel word, the half-truth” and other classifications, Stewart wrote.
Ferdinand Mount – a former Spectator colleague – added that mendacity has a “strange fascination for intellectuals”.
Nel this week’s LRB Mount cites Plato and Friedrich Nietzsche who thought great men lied in order to show their indifference to conventional morality – and hence their superiority. Johnson may share this view. Or not. Either way, he has done rather well from lying, Mount notes.
Commentators agree that having a liar as prime minister is bad for the body politic. The journalist Peter Oborne is a one-time admirer of Johnson turned passionate critic. He describes the PM as the most prolific fabricator he has encountered in three decades as a political reporter. In his damning book The Assault on Truth, Oborne argues Johnson has betrayed the solemn contract between “rulers and ruled”.
Brexit and the pandemic offer a chance to reshape Britain. But Applebaum and others worry the country is being moulded into a less democratic form. Authoritarian states such as Russia have grown adept at propaganda. They see truth as irrelevant. What matters, the Kremlin argues, is ‘narrative’ – with lying justified if it is done in the interests of a higher sovereign purpose.
Some of this postmodern thinking has washed over into our own populist politics, she suggests. Johnson and his allies interpret their victory in the Brexit referendum as a sweeping mandate to cleanse existing institutions of liberal ‘bias’: the courts, civil service and the BBC. Using occasional distortion to get there is legitimate, the reasoning goes, since the goal is a noble one.
Ancora, Stefanovic is cheered by the fact that his video calling out the prime minister has been shared so many times. “It’s a wake-up call," Egli ha detto. “I’m saying: ‘Hang on, these are bare-faced lies. Boris Johnson is crossing into outright fantasy’.”