At the start of Tuesday morning’s lobby briefing, the first question posed to Boris Johnson’s squirming official spokesperson was: “Are you planning on telling us the truth today?”
It was an indication of just how fraught the relationship has become between the journalists covering Westminster politics – known as the lobby – and No 10.
Twice daily, journalists who are members of the parliamentary lobby – covering politics from Westminster – can attend a briefing with either the prime minister’s official spokesperson or his deputy.
These briefings can range across any issue of the day: whatever the journalists present want to raise. The answers can be directly reported, in quote marks, as the on-the-record view of the government.
Journalists naturally have a healthy scepticism, not to say cynicism, about everyone they deal with – but the relationship with any spokesperson relies on a basic level of trust, which has been sorely missing of late.
Johnson’s spokesperson, who is a civil servant, had already apologised for the fact that the Downing Street press office misled journalists over Partygate, repeatedly insisting that no parties took place and that Covid guidance was followed.
That subsequently appeared particularly egregious, given that some of the boozy gatherings outlined in the damning Sue Gray report took place in the press office (though the current official spokesperson was not there for much of that time).
Now once again, they have misled journalists over what the prime minister knew, and when, about the past behaviour of former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher.
Journalists expect bluster and spin from spads – the political advisers with whom politicians surround themselves – though even here, a trusting relationship depends on the absence of outright lies.
But civil service spokespeople tend to be more cautious, sticking scrupulously to the facts – albeit as seen squarely from the government’s perspective.
The civil service code sets out the values that should inform civil servants’ behaviour, including “honesty”.
Spelling that out in detail, it adds: “You must: set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible.”
The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, the most senior civil servant, was grilled about the role of No 10 press officers in the cover-up of Partygate when he appeared before a committee of MPs last week.
The former shadow chancellor John McDonnell asked him what action could be taken if the press office was packed with what he called “lying toads”.
Case, who appeared flustered and irritated at various points during the hearing, said press officers were not exempt from disciplinary proceedings in the wake of the scandal.
Of course, even the best press officers can only convey the version of the truth they have been given – and with a prime minister who habitually misrepresents reality, that job is particularly hard.
As Johnson’s spokesperson put it: “I will always seek to provide information I have available to me at the time of each briefing.”
It appeared that he had not been told by the prime minister that Johnson knew about the complaint against Chris Pincher in 2019, until after former foreign office permanent secretary Simon McDonald’s devastating public letter on Tuesday morning revealed that Johnson was briefed at the time.
Those who have worked with Johnson in the past say his first instinct when boxed into a corner is often to suggest telling a fib, rather than face up to the reality of the situation.
Dominic Cummings’s “trolley” analogy for the prime minister, represents the way Johnson’s judgment can swerve all over the place – but those who know him well say his version of the truth can also veer about wildly.
For civil servants with a wider duty, to the taxpayer as well as the government of the day, that can create painful dilemmas, as Case alluded to at last week’s hearing when he said this government was one that, “believes it has a mandate to test established boundaries”.
Few at Westminster would doubt the fact that it is Boris Johnson who must bear ultimate responsibility for the untruths that have spewed out of Downing Street in recent months. But whatever its cause, the effect has been a complete collapse in trust.