As Slow Views go… they don’t come much slower than the journey of the political and media classes, as they have travelled from knowing perfectly well that we have an incompetent and amoral liar as prime minister – but not always admitting as much – to this becoming a conventional wisdom that can finally be spoken out loud.
Even now, some have to be dragged to the point of basic candour kicking and screaming. “Well,” some Westminster reporters have been burbling breathlessly down the line of late, “If it transpires that the prime minister has misled Lord Geidt [the independent adviser on ministers’ interests] over the question of who paid for the refurbishment of the Number 10 flat, things could get very serious indeed…”
If? This prime minister lied to the Queen about proroguing Parliament, for heaven’s sake. Why the apparent surprise that he might, just conceivably, have lied to one of her former minions about gaudy wallpaper?
Click to another news channel, and another talking head will be saying: “If it turns out that the prime minister misled Parliament over the question of whether or not there was a party in Number 10, when much of the rest of the country was subject to strict Covid restrictions, then you might well see some Tory backbenchers begin to call into question Boris Johnson’s leadership…”
If, if, if… if Boris Johnson is a liar… I hate to resort to cliché so early in the piece (one of my proudest moments in 2021 was watching my comedian daughter Grace tell her audience: “The most irritating thing about my Dad is that he never uses clichés and calls me out every time I do”) but sometimes, nothing else will do. So: think bears shitting in woods, Popes being Catholic, the sun coming up each morning.
There are no ifs or buts about it. Boris Johnson is a liar, and there is not a QC in the land who wouldn’t relish the prospect of a libel trial, with him in the witness box, so that his opposition to that proposal could be tested.
One of the challenges I set myself for 2021 was to get a new word – HOOSIAL – to become part of the accepted political lexicon. I failed. However, the seven principles it represents, the Nolan Principles of Honesty, Openness, Objectivity, Selflessness, Integrity, Accountability and Leadership, have played a bigger role in national debate than in previous years. Johnson, in violating these principles pretty much on a daily basis, must take the credit for that.
Dominic Cummings is a liar too, still proudly taking credit for the strategy of digitally supercharged falsehoods that helped inflict the biggest and most damaging constitutional, economic and diplomatic change of our lifetime. But that doesn’t mean he is not now telling the truth when he says his former boss lies so often, so effortlessly, that he no longer knows the difference between truth and untruth.
Yet what does it say about Britain’s media and political culture, and the country more generally, that it took a frenzy over a leaked video of a practice briefing, by a spokeswoman who never did the job she was hired for, to light the fuse that properly ignited that slow burning view that maybe – just maybe – Boris Johnson is not the kind of person we need leading the UK when it faces so many serious challenges?
The shame of it is that they all knew: the many client journalists who have fawned on him, playing up the personality and the PR stunts, playing down the mistakes and the misleading; or the Tory MPs who have bowed down before him.
Anyone who worked with him when he was a journalist knew that he made up stories. He boasted about it. He boasted about how he got away with it. Anyone who witnessed him as London Mayor knew that the “Boris” act was just that – an act, facts and truth being optional extras in its colourful execution.
Anyone who followed the EU referendum campaign knew that the most important democratic decision of our era was, to him, not about Britain’s place in the world, but about Boris Johnson’s place on the political and media ladder.
I still find it genuinely weird that the country seems willing to forget and to forgive lies that have taken a massive chunk out of the economy; made work, business and travel harder; created a labour market and supply chain crisis in several key economic and social sectors; taken away so many rights and opportunities; damaged strategic alliances; and destabilised the peace process in Northern Ireland; and yet explodes in fury about whether there were social gatherings last Christmas in Number 10.
Weird, too, that it was Partygate and Wallpapergate, rather than the big lies on the big red bus, or the election-winning lies about his oven-ready Brexit deal, that finally got the chattering classes saying with anything approaching unanimity that there is a truth issue with Johnson – and that it might just be an important problem. The problem of his character goes back a very long way indeed; it has required an awful lot of aiding and abetting by others, a whole army of enablers ensuring that it did not become as central a question as it should have been all along.
Consider: Johnson’s reward for winning the referendum in 2016 by leading Project Lies to victory over Project Fear was not opprobrium, but promotion to one of the great offices of state, foreign secretary, where his already well-known loathing of detail, his loose language and general buffoonery created fresh damage to our standing in the world. His reward for the relentless undermining of Theresa May was to be elevated by his party further to the very top of the ladder, as her replacement in Number 10.
Next, came the election of December 2019: the lies of the referendum set aside and eclipsed by the banal pledge to “Get Brexit Done” – nice and quick and easy, promise! Add in the public’s fear of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister, and Johnson had all he needed to achieve a decent majority.
Lies, fantasies, myths and broken promises have been the foundation of every step of his remarkable career. A conman, a liar, a charlatan, hiding in plain sight.
My book of 2021 was Sad Little Men, by Richard Beard, whose sub-title gives you a flavour of what follows: Private schools and the Ruin of England. Eton has produced three times more prime ministers than the Labour Party in its entire history, and the two most recent Etonian PMs have done more damage than most.
Read this book, written by someone sent away to boarding school as a child, and you get a better understanding of why David Cameron called his disastrous referendum; never for a moment thought he would lose; then on losing, hummed and harrumphed briefly before going off to make millions from connections made on his effortless ride to the top.
Such men, Beard says, are bred and raised to feel innately superior, never to say “I don’t know”, much less to admit to being wrong. He points out that Cameron is “right” (at least in his own eyes) four times on the opening two pages of his autobiography. Both the referendum, and immediately quitting after he lost it, were “the right thing to do.” He is “so fixated on being right, I worry for how secretly wrong he must feel,” observes the writer, astutely.
You get a better understanding, too, of Johnson’s pathological ability to fake empathy for others, whilst in truth having none; of his love of bullying and insults; of his racism and misogyny; and of his use of wit to make them appear less offensive.
You learn where the PM’s “have your cake and eat it” approach to life comes from. You see why he so enjoys getting into scrapes, because it presents him with the challenge of how to get out of them. That is where he finds himself now – and there is a contrarian part of him that will be relishing it as a new year dawns. “They think they’ve got me… I’ll show ‘em.”
My Freudian projection moment of 2021 was Johnson’s speech at the UN meeting on the climate crisis: “We believe that someone else will clear up the mess we make, because that is what someone else has always done. We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we have got away with it so far, and therefore we will get away with it again.”
How much jollier the jape of getting out of a scrape – and, even by his standards, it is quite a scrape he’s in this Christmas – than having to focus on boring stuff like improving schools and hospitals, delivering on his instantly forgotten promise to “move heaven and earth” to get out of Afghanistan those our chaotic incompetence left behind; or working out what to do about Putin amassing Russian troops on the border with Ukraine.
“He flaunted shamelessly what the rest of us tried to conceal,” Beard concludes of Johnson. “He was chaotic, unformed, cruel, slapdash, essentially frivolous. When he messed up he was just a boy, with his boyishly ruffled hair, and expected to be excused. An expert dissembler, he discovered the best place to hide was in plain sight.” Ah, there we go again: hiding in plain sight. He is still doing it.
As part of a Goethe Institute course, I have been reading a lot of German books this year, and my foreign language book of 2021 was Populismus für Anfänger (“Populism for Beginners”) by two Austrians, economist Walter Ötsch and journalist Nina Horsczek.
Written in 2017, the book focuses principally on Donald Trump, and far-right politicians from Austria and Germany – Britain only meriting half a page that covers ten Brexit lies and broken promises from the referendum a year earlier.
All the same, to read the insights the two authors offer in their analysis of modern demagoguery is to see the Johnson playbook outlined quite clearly: propaganda is more important than policy; simple untruths beat complex realities; you must demand loyalty of others, but not give it yourself; stirring up division is vital, and good; build slavish media backing and sectarian support; develop a unique way of speaking, rich in imagery and the exploitation of emotions and symbols; rewrite national history; say unsayables; use baseless claims and insults; ignore conventions; weaken Cabinet, Parliament and bodies that threaten “the will of the people” as you define it; never admit you’re wrong; never accept your opponents are right; and always blame others if things go wrong. Donald Trump ticks every box. So does Johnson.
So that’s populism. But my new word of 2021 (other than HOOSIAL, of course) was a variation on the theme, namely “sado-populism.” Credit for that one must go to American historian Timothy Snyder, who has written many books, on Hitler and Stalin, on tyranny, on the fragility of democracy.
Sado-populism is a politics in which leaders implement policies, even while knowing they will damage the people who voted them into power. Accepting that it is odd for governments to inflict pain on their own people, Snyder explains the strategy behind it.
You devote less energy to improving life for people, than to fuelling fear, rage, resentment, hate; but you make people feel better by making sure that they know others are far worse off; and you nurture a culture of blame and division between different groups. Racism, discrimination and nationalist exceptionalism are all essential to this. Bear this in mind every time you hear Johnson and co. boast of a “world-beating” achievement (when it is no such thing); or trying to blame President Macron for all our woes.
It was another Etonian, George Orwell, who observed: “They [Etonians] had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen.”
As a strategy, Brexit has been a sado-populist, people-plundering classic. Secured by phoney promises of taking back control, resurrecting lost British pride, and the big lie of plenty more money for the NHS thrown in; the campaign fuelled by enmities – immigrants, Turks, “Brussels” unelected bureaucrats; and the very word “Europe” used to connote an enemy, often deployed in the language of war.
Now that Brexit is going badly, not delivering the promised benefits, the British negotiators, led by the unelected bureaucrat Lord Frost, blame the Europeans for letting them have the deal they now want to tear up; “we have all the cards” has become “we were weak and they exploited us.” And if a trade war is sparked by the border in the Irish Sea which Johnson said would be created over his dead body, let’s blame big bad Europe for starting it – and we can hate them even more.
If you’re a medium-sized business struggling with new import-and-export red tape, cheer up… you could be a farmer looking at rotting fruit in the fields because the pickers have all gone home. If you’re a City worker seeing capital flow to Frankfurt and Amsterdam, at least you’re not a fisherman losing his entire livelihood.
Austerity – which, to be fair, predates Johnson, though he supported it – was a sado-populist classic, too. What was it the UN’s Special Rapporteur on poverty said in the report on the UK? “Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.” But it did not: this was all part of the original Cameron-Osborne plan.
More recently we have seen the posh boys knowingly pushing children into poverty with the £20 cut to universal credit; a new social care policy which helps the wealthy at the expense of the poor; a government tough on “benefit scroungers” but lax on tax-dodgers and money-laundering oligarchs who have bought their way into London’s top properties, England’s top schools, and Britain’s ruling party. All these measures – and others like them – were literally bred on the playing fields of Eton. Why worry about tearing apart the fabric of the nation, provided the fabric of the Union flag is in every shot of every ministerial interview?
As to why this approach “makes sense”, from the perspective of the sado-populist: it tops up the reservoir of pain, anxiety and fear that can be directed against others. You teach people this is normal, says Snyder: “The government cannot help you, life is full of pain but we have the consolation that others are suffering more grievances.”
You hurt and you want someone else to hurt more. Instead of thinking about how we might all do better together in the future, we think about how we, as individuals, are doing better than others – and make that the best we can hope for.
Listen to sado-populists talk about asylum or immigration, and you will hear someone exploiting a problem, not providing solutions; less worried about the impact of policies on those who will be directly affected by them, up to and including children who drown in the sea, than the reaction of voters unlikely ever to meet the kind of people getting into the dinghies.
On overseas aid, the Tories’ manifesto-breaking cut from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP was never about the potential impact that such a decision would have upon some of the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world, and upon Britain’s reputation. It was always a mean-spirited political stunt: a means of telling people in Britain that we matter more, we are better, than poverty-stricken foreigners in places far away.
Russia, meanwhile, is already well advanced in the next stage of the sado-populist journey: the deliberate undermining of democracy itself. Trump tried to follow, first in voter suppression, still part of the Republican strategy; and then by refusing to accept the democratic outcome that ejected him from office – with terrible consequences on 6 January.
This all fits the pattern of the “Sovereign Individual” mindset I have written about for Tortoise before: the right-wing libertarian worldview in which the wealthy and powerful are left to operate free from controls imposed on others, and have total control of what Sovereign Individuals like William Rees-Mogg, who coined the term – and whose super-wealthy son Jacob, another Old Etonian, now sits in the UK Cabinet – called the “serfs”.
It’s why the charge against the government that there is “one rule for us, one rule for them” has resonance – because it speaks to how the current ruling elite views power. Incidentally, Rees-Mogg Jr, who has argued so passionately for ending the Sure Start policy, cutting disability benefits, and raising national insurance for low- and middle-income workers, is currently under investigation for failing to declare £6 million worth of loans to his investment management firm, Somerset Capital.
His day job is managing government business in the House of Commons. So reflect upon this: if a government in the developing world was bringing in new laws to curb the role of the judiciary, and the right to protest; to limit protection of whistle-blowers and journalists; to curb the power of the Electoral Commission to investigate wrongdoing by political parties; to make it harder for poorer people to vote: I think we know what Tory MPs would call it.
Yet they themselves have recently voted for all of those things. None of them provoked outrage on a par with that sparked by Allegra Stratton’s rehearsal briefing. That doesn’t excuse her at all. But it does underline my point about the sheer weirdness of our politics right now, and the real dangers faced by our democracy and its institutions unless we wake up.
My speech of 2021 was made by the acclaimed British filmmaker David Puttnam, in which he set out the reasons why he was giving up his seat in the House of Lords. “With every passing month there are more [moves like those above] – each of them setting out to chip away at and undermine much of what defines an active liberal democracy: those institutions that might act as checks and balances on a populist government that’s trampling on long held rights and conventions, with the sole purpose of tightening its own grip on power. Which is why a free and fearless media is essential to democracy.”
Puttnam spoke of a series of conversations he had had, when researching one of his early films, with Nazi architect Albert Speer after his release from jail for war crimes. “I came to understand what we now call ‘the fascist playbook,’” he said, “the way democracy can be corrupted and overturned by a few malevolent but persuasive politicians, those who are prepared to exploit divisions in society with simple populist messages.”
Speer explained to him the extent to which we were all vulnerable, and the importance of developing the “moral vigilance” required to recognise “nascent evil” for what it is. Dictatorship, Speer told him, requires ever tightening power structures within the centre of government.
It depends upon media control, and the packing of institutions with like-minded individuals (which is why we should be pleased that Johnson failed in his bid to install Paul Dacre at Ofcom, but alarmed that so many of his Brexit pals and Tory donors are being installed on public boards large and small, and worried that there remain so many client journalists in the media, preferring to amplify Johnson’s narratives and lies, than to challenge, expose and speak truth to power).
According to Speer, all this involves the elevation of propaganda to a level where objective truth is deliberately debased. Think Trump and “alternative facts”; think Johnson and the relentless gaslighting of the public about his government’s “world-beating” record on Covid; think Putin and the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s brilliant book about Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
This is why Johnson’s capacity for lying matters. He is not a clown or a joker. He is an illiberal threat to liberal democracy, rules-based order, even the rule of law itself, and his deliberate debasing of truth as the most vital currency of debate is what makes the threat so real.
What was it Margaret Thatcher said? “The first duty of government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it’s inconvenient, if government does that, then so will the governed, and then nothing is safe – not home, not liberty, not life itself.”
Which is perhaps why another ex-Tory prime minister, Sir John Major, has called the Johnson regime “deeply unconservative”. The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, says that the government intends to seek new powers to overrule judicial decisions – that is, to put themselves above the law. Given that this would self-evidently be a step too far for Thatcher and Major, are there really no ministers and Tory MPs today who fear where all this might be heading? Is there no limit to what they are prepared to put up with?
In respect to this question, Puttnam quoted another old-school Tory, ex-foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, who said: “The duty of Government is to steer the ship of State through waters that are inevitably rough, sometimes even treacherous, and bring it back into a safe harbour for another group of honest men and women to assume the same responsibility.”
That is what has been lost for now, and risks being lost for good, unless Johnson and his dishonest ways are taken on and defeated. The year 2022 has to be the moment when that task is undertaken in earnest.
Photograph by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images