Peter Oborne argues convincingly that Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister (and the confirmation of this in a subsequent General Election) represents a existential break with Britain’s political past. A past that stretches back nearly two hundred years to the mid Victorian era when the “Victorians brought high ideals into government”. These ideals included “accountability and integrity” – above all “lying to Parliament, was one of the most serious crimes any British politician could commit”. “Standards of truth telling” argues Oborne, “collapsed at the moment…Johnson entered 10 Downing Street”
The premise of the book is that in the same way that Donald Trump’s intellectually barren populist crusade exploded established convention in 2016 so Johnson’s equally mendacious accession to power three years later was a moral and political disaster. The judgment criteria we apply when looking at our leaders (competence, honesty, selfless public service, moral principle) disappeared in clouds of bluff, bluster and dishonest discourse.
Starting with his self interested backing of “Leave” in 2016 and continuing to the present day Johnson commits “Deliberate and Systematic Deceit” . Oborne lists dozens of examples of the mendacity including, and especially, the “spreading [of] lies on social media”. Here the dark arts of the likes of Dominic Cummings were employed to “good” effect – “Johnson’s Conservatives deliberately set out to lie and to cheat their way to victory”.
Peter Oborne is an experienced and knowledgeable observer and recorder of British politics over more than twenty years. He has a solid context in which to place his judgments. He says he has never seen anything like Johnson’s Government and this reviewer, who actually goes back a decade longer in his recall, agrees!
Most recently it started with the “Leave” campaign in 2016 – Brexit was achieved by fraud and Johnson played his full part in the deception. This was the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope of dysfunctionality and corruption. Along the way conspirators in the Brexit coup have been rewarded by being in Government or in some bizarre cases by elevations of the faithful to the House of Lords. More recently we have seen government contract handouts to Boris’s buddies. Boris Johnson, says Oborne, “… never needed a noble justification for lying”. Nor for largesse it seems.
We were warned, oh how we were warned, but we didn’t care. Johnson was first sacked for lying (from “The Times”) at the age of 23. As Europe correspondent of The Daily Telegraph he was an early creator of “Fake News” and he clearly saw nothing wrong in public or personal deceit. Another lie about his private life led to his sacking as a shadow minister by Michael Howard in 2004. But you couldn’t keep a bad man down. He was a charismatic, if lazy, Mayor of London for eight years. Not much of a job, in truth but a nice platform for preening and display.
Where we are now, says Oborne, is that “Ministers can lie to Parliament but escape rebuke. They can bully and harass staff and get away with it. They can undermine civil servants and not pay the price. They can award contracts to cronies and nobody minds”
The Johnson premiership has sailed ahead on falsehoods and propaganda with various management and competence failures being covered up with a succession of untruths. But when COVID-19 hit this dysfunctionality became lethal. “Prime Minister Johnson failed for a long time to grasp the significance of the crisis” days Oborne. False claims on the progress of testing were to follow along with claims that Britain was handling the crisis well when the opposite was self-evidently the case. They lied or dissembled about everything including testing and care homes – Case and death statistics (which were dreadful) were massaged. Operational failure was compounded by communications deceit.
At the core of the Johnson year plus in office there has, says Oborne, been a “wider attack on the pillars of British democracy”. You can only have a liberal democracy if it is based on truth. Oborne references Orwell’s 1984. Johnson “…has been caught out rewriting the past in very much the same way as Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.”
In his inaugural address the new President Joe Biden said “…we must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” And he went on
“… And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders…to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
This was a response, of course, to Donald Trump but it could equally be aimed at Boris Johnson’s post-truth rule. Johnson and Trump are shown together on the cover of Peter Oborne’s book – for good reason.
“It’s time to fight back” are the last words of Peter Oborne’s courageous and timely book. In 176 small format pages he frankly demolishes the credibility of Boris Johnson who is, perhaps, the ultimate example of the “Peter Principle”. But Johnson’s unsuitability for high office goes beyond his deficiencies of competence. This is, as with Trump, about character and honesty.
Johnson has failed throughout his public and personal lives to develop character traits that go beyond the superficiality of blustering self-confidence. Or to show that he has the remotest capability to distinguish fact from fiction and lies from the truth. “It’s time to fight back” indeed.