When Donald Trump won the US presidential election while lying about almost everything, Boris Johnson expressed deep interest in his success. “He was fascinated by it,” an official in constant contact with Johnson at the time told me. “He kept asking how on earth Trump had got away with it.”
Johnson required no tuition in mendacity since he had practiced it continually throughout his career, but he was nevertheless impressed by Trump’s expertise in selling falsehoods.
Johnson’s own record of duplicity in word and deed is, in my view, unrivalled in British politics: “He has mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial,” wrote Rory Stewart, who was a minister at the Foreign Office when Johnson was foreign secretary, last year. “He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy. He is equally adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth; the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie, and the bullshit lie – which may inadvertently be true.”
Johnson’s critics are rejoicing at the disastrous Conservative defeat in the North Shropshire by-election. The end of Johnson’s premiership in the coming months looks more and more likely. His possible departure makes it all the more important to ask how far Johnson was the symptom or the cause of a distinct period in British history when false slogans swamped the truth more than previously.
Many put the blame on Johnson’s personal turpitude, rooted in his rule-breaking sense of entitlement bred into him at Eton and in the Bullingdon Club. This argument is briefly convincing until one remembers that British politics has seldom been squeaky clean when it comes to telling the truth. It was three centuries ago that Dr John Arbuthnot wrote his satirical Treatise on the Art of Political Lying which is full of sage and cynical advice that remains fully applicable to the present day.
The failings attributed to Johnson are replicated in leaders all over the world, who never went to Eton and have never heard of the Bullingdon Club. In country after country, from Turkey to Brazil and the US to India, populist nationalist leaders notorious for their systematic aversion to the truth, and the persecution of those who tell it, have been winning elections over the past 10 or more years. Evidently, something has changed in the political landscape of the world that means that lies have become a more important ingredient in political success than they used to be. The Washington Post counted 30,573 false or misleading statements made by Trump during his four years in the White House, but their blatancy and easy refutation appeared to carry no penalty in a politically polarised country where few change their mind, whatever the evidence.
Many are baffled and disgusted by this decline in moral standards, but there are at least four good reasons why this virus-like outbreak of political untruthfulness should have swept through the world. It is rightly associated with the rise of populist nationalist leaders like Johnson, Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi – to name only the better known.
First, the gap between the promises and performance of the new wave of populist nationalists can only be bridged by lies. In the UK, Brexit was sold as a means of making the country stronger and more independent, but it has demonstrably done the opposite. British policy was traditionally to keep the UK united and continental Europe divided, but now the reverse has happened. Such a diminution in British power can only be explained away by denying it and pretending that a new global Britain is in the making. Not that there is anything thing particularly British in these self-glorifying fantasies. Movements seeking national self-determination invariably promise more than they can deliver.
Second, Johnson leads a coalition at the core of which is a party reshaped by the Brexit campaign which created an alliance of prosperous shires and suburbs with deprived, de-industrialised voters. Such combinations, which have sprung up in many countries, have been called “pluto-populist”, combining as they do plutocrats seeking neo-Thatcherite policies, such as lower taxes and a smaller state, with “left behind” voters seeking greater state intervention. This unstable grouping can only be kept together by a stream of contradictory promises from Johnson which means that somebody will end up being betrayed – the winners usually being the plutocrats. Great infrastructural projects – such as HS2 – billed as the cutting edge of “levelling-up” are squeezed by born-again Thatcherites, and genuine plutocrats, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. “Red Wall” Tory voters have to be satisfied with vague boosterism and post-dated promises
Third, the identity of the populists is defined more than it is in most political movements by demonising opponents and blaming them for all that is wrong. Brussels was scapegoated as the source of Britain’s ills five years ago and remains a favourite target to this day. Trump identified enemies everywhere from Central American immigrants to Hillary Clinton (remember the chants of “lock her up”). Remainers in Britain tended to underestimate the degree to which the Brexit vote had become baked into the sense of identity of voters who had supported it and this was not going to change.
Finally, the internet and 24/7 television news coverage transformed the nature of political campaigning. Johnson and Trump were experts in exploiting this in ways that their opponents had not even considered. With vast oceans of information now available all the time on screens small and large, it is not surprising that lies, fake confrontations, fake facts are deployed to attract attention. The primal sin is to be boring, which Trump and Johnson very seldom are. Trump is obsessed with TV ratings and views accusations of lying by Democrats as giving him more publicity. Dominic Cummings would likewise smirk with self-satisfaction over Remainer criticism of the notoriously untrue claims on the side of a bus about £350m haemorrhaging to the EU.
Compare Johnson’s bumbling but spontaneous delivery to the fluent but robotic tedium of a speech by or an interview with Sir Keir Starmer. Many voters may interpret this as a sign of honesty and a welcome change after Johnson’s buffoonery, but he will struggle to combat a new post-Johnson Tory leader.
With the onset of pandemic, Trump and Johnson took different approaches. Trump doubled down on polarisation while Johnson presented himself as a unifying leader, but in both cases the great weakness of habitual liars came into play. They no longer seem to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood and are incapable of dealing with a real crisis rather than the imaginary threats they invented and exploited. Both leaders showed disastrously poor and indecisive judgement, leading many to die who would have survived under a more competent leader. In Britain, at least, the lies no longer mask the reality.