The front page of the Sun on 27 April had the headline “Lying of Duty” stamped across a mocked-up case file from AC-12, the police anti-corruption unit featured in BBC One’s Line of Duty. The conceit is that Adrian Dunbar’s Ch Supt Ted Hastings, scourge of “bent coppers” in the show, should investigate multiple allegations of impropriety against Boris Johnson.
This joke escalates a metaphor introduced by Keir Starmer at prime minister’s questions on 14 April, when the Labour leader suggested Hastings could be hired to look at David Cameron’s lobbying of Johnson’s government on behalf of the finance company Greensill.
It’s common for the media and politicians to invoke popular TV tropes to mocking effect – Del Boy Trotter of Only Fools and Horses for economic dodginess, Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army for panicky calls to calm – but the connection between Johnson and Jed Mercurio’s twisty thriller is deeper and stranger; internal as well as external.
The final and pivotal conspirator in the high-level web of corruption – likely to be exposed in Sunday’s sixth-season finale – was first known as “H” and then “the fourth man”. But there is increasing evidence that the ultimate villain of this series is really “J” – AKA “first lord of the Treasury”, as he identified himself in recently leaked email exchanges about tax policies with the vacuum-cleaner supremo Sir James Dyson.
This series’ trailer intercut the tagline “Lies Cost Lives” with clips of Hastings complaining about “a bare-faced liar promoted to our highest office” and asking: “When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?”
It immediately seemed clear that Mercurio – who has said that each series of Line of Duty has its own sub-theme – was looking beyond the leadership of his fictional Central police towards Westminster, and a politician who for eight years had regulatory oversight of the Metropolitan police (one of the duties of the mayor of London).
Maar, as the series went on, and the “bare-faced liar” – the chief constable, Philip Osborne, played by Owen Teale – became the likeliest candidate as hub of the corruption at the very top, it has become clear how precise the political identification is. It’s probably a coincidence that, like Johnson, Teale is a former UK foreign secretary (the actor played a holder of the office in the 2012 BBC drama Kidnap and Ransom), but other overlaps feel strikingly precise.
The most specific example of Osborne’s dishonesty points directly to Johnson. In the third episode of the sixth series, the TV journalist Gail Vella (whose murder is the structural subplot of this run) was seen in a clip from an unbroadcast report confronting the chief constable with having lied about increasing the number of police in his force: the figure for new recruits, Vella alleges, was falsely inflated and, even then, does not compensate for previous cuts.
In a show noted for procedural realism, this felt slightly off. Real chief constables are more likely to ask for an increase in their ranks than boast about having more cops than they have. But that is because the scene is not really about the police.
Peter Oborne, in his recent book The Assault on Truth, an investigation of Johnson’s faithless relationship with facts, explores the prime minister’s claim, speaking in Oldham during the 2019 general election campaign, that “20,000 more police are operating on our streets to fight crime and bring crime down”. In werklikheid, Oborne points out, the government was merely saying it would add that number over three years and, even if the target was achieved, it would barely replace the fall in force numbers since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.
While this was the Johnson falsehood easiest to include directly in Line of Duty, Mercurio, a former hospital doctor who wrote two of the best medical TV dramas (Cardiac Arrest, Bodies), was also possibly influenced by the politician’s history of inaccurate statements on the NHS. Oborne’s book notes eight whoppers, of which the most serious was Johnson’s repeated claim to be “building 40 new hospitals”, wanneer, in truth, funds had been allocated for some rebuilding work at six sites.
Another case Vella was pursuing against Osborne involved his closing down of attempted investigations into his conduct or that of associates. Again, this charge goes beyond a fictional thin blue line. In the 15 months since coronavirus emerged, Johnson has become notorious for agreeing that a full inquiry into his handling of the pandemic will be necessary, but probably not before the Twelfth of Never. En, as the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, admitted in evidence to MPs on Monday, while the prime minister has authorised multiple leak inquiries in Downing Street, it is unlikely they will uncover culprits.
The prime minister has been pursued throughout his career by allegations of lying, deceit and misrepresentation – perhaps most grievously over his insistence that there would be no borders or new import and export costs on the island of Ireland after Brexit, which businesses have found to be ruinously untrue. Johnson has also so far survived claims of corruption (including business favours as mayor of London to Jennifer Arcuri, who says she was his lover), multiple offensive references about race in newspaper columns and public comments, and an unknown quantity of off-the-record offspring.
Common journalistic convention at this point would be to say that Mr Johnson denies these charges, but he never really has; he either ignores them or declares that British voters are more interested in some other issue.
But now he is being called to account in the highest-profile TV drama of the day. In November 1990, Andrew Davies’ BBC One adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel House of Cards, a thriller about Tory infighting after the fall of Margaret Thatcher, began transmission in the week that Thatcher resigned. For Line of Duty to conclude in the week when the net may be closing in on Johnson (although he has always escaped until now) feels an equally thrilling synchronicity. But it results from judgment (in two senses) rather than luck. Mercurio, though working in genre traditions, is an acute political writer; his 2018 series, Bodyguard, turned on a Westminster conspiracy.
It seems likely that, in the denouement of Line of Duty, Osborne’s regime will be revealed to have promoted lies and liars, blocked favoured cronies, disadvantaged people of colour and blocked inquiries – precisely the rap sheet against the Johnson administration. It is also possible – after the sixth-episode revelation that DCI Joanne Davidson grew up believing her absentee dad was a bent copper – that Osborne will prove to have an unacknowledged child. Certainly, paternity denied or hidden by senior figures, has been a bubbling undercurrent in this season.
The conspiracy in Line of Duty extends to censorship of TV stations – Vella’s investigations into the police were never broadcast. In commendable contrast, the BBC has been willing to screen across seven weeks a series that can be viewed as an unprecedentedly sustained criticism of the integrity of a serving prime minister. Although, as Mercurio has worked through canny parallels, it’s possible that BBC bosses did not spot the subtext.
In a notoriously opaque show, it seems increasingly clear what is going on. Whether or not Osborne turns out to be “H”, he is surely – bare-facedly – “J”.