BOris Johnson was a liar and had to leave. It seems they are allowed to say that even at the Palace of Westminster, in certain circumstances, where dignity has traditionally prohibited such offensive language. Johnson might have thought he could roar, primp and brag for a few more months in the safe zone of another general election, as he half-implied during his raucous final Question Hour in the Commons Wednesday. His favorite weapon, his tongue, might allow him to fight another day. But he had lied too much. He was doomed.
I still think historians will find Johnson’s rapid fall puzzling. Politics has long been a conspiracy of lies. Johnson came to power telling lies about the benefits of freeing Britain’s economy from the EU single market. Since Brexit, the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated a 4% drop in growth in the UK, which the FT calculates as a loss of tax revenue of £40bn each year due to the difficult agreement of Johnson. Just above half of the electorate now think leaving the EU was a mistake. History could imagine that this played a role in Johnson’s departure. But no – he’s going because he lied about the parties and what he knew about a whip’s misbehavior.
The truth is that the political club can handle grand lies. Tony Blair lied about the threat of Saddam Hussein and dragged the nation into a pointless war. He didn’t need to resign. Eden survived her fabricated account of Suez, while Macmillan was devastated by Profumo’s personal lie. As for ‘security’, all prime ministers think it gives them the right to lie to the teeth – ‘to be frugal with the truth’, to use a phrase popularized by Thatcher’s cabinet secretary.
The usual excuse is that politicians are allowed to make up stories about the future, and even the past, or they would never be elected. In his book Political Hypocrisy, Cambridge professor David Runciman argues that a degree of falsehood is needed to underpin the hopes, optimism and even trust people have in Democratic leaders. Leadership is a plausible illusion. Churchill called it “terminological inaccuracy”. Johnson thought Brexit might make him boss of the Tories and duly dubbed him taking back control even though he must have known, as every trader now knows, that it would do the opposite.
For Runciman, harnessing hypocrisy is the essence of power, the ability to pledge the earth even when the pledger and the audience both know it’s bullshit. Lies are meant to convey confidence and ambition, such as when parents lie to their children to secure their love. Johnson was good at it. He promised to “level” the country. He told everyone that Britain was the greatest country in the world and “beat the world”. He sent aircraft carriers to the South China Sea and danced over Ukraine. He laughed, joked and lied. It was magnetic. He stays, according to YouGovthe most popular Conservative leader in a generation (30% like him).
That may be the message Johnson conveyed to his sidekick Liz Truss, who some are now predicting as prime minister in a month. Rishi Sunak believes fiscal prudence, honesty and accountability is the honest way to appeal to conservative members. Truss disagrees. It promises what a chorus of economic commentators declares to be tax nonsense. She assured the BBC that her tax cuts would reduce inflation. Asked to justify this assertion, she could only quote Patrick Minford, economist architect of the Brexit disaster. I combed through the columns of the financial press and found no supporters of his thesis.
OECD experts from the Resolution Foundation point out that the UK has one of the lowest tax burdens in Europe. Many incoming regimes promise tax cuts and increased utility spending, with a temporary increase in borrowing. The novelty in post-Covid Britain is that the resulting indebtedness would surpass any peacetime precedent. Since every public service is now crying out for money, for Truss, preaching tax cuts is not just preaching harsh austerity. It is to preach what she must know that the Treasury and the Cabinet will not actually do. But if such a policy worked for the Johnsons, why not try again?
The art of political lying is to focus on what cannot be tested immediately – to lie about the future. The lies that led to Johnson’s downfall may have been relatively small, but they were about the present and instantly falsifiable. These were Houdini’s lies, ensuring escape from one trap even if it only led to another. They end up eroding everyone’s trust.
I believe truthfulness in public life is actually on an upward curve. Political statements can be verified by the media with ever greater ease. The veil of secrecy that has long hung over government – petty corruption, lack of auditing, planning bribes – is proving vulnerable to ever-increasing digital penetration and surveillance. Craven’s falsehoods and promises are easier to untangle and test.
If politicians couldn’t promise the earth – or claim to have created it – democracy would be really boring. However, there must be limits. When Rishi Sunak says two plus two is four and Liz Truss says five, I have no choice. I have to go get Sunak.