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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Boris Johnson’s litany of lies is an assault on our democracy

His lying isn't simply a question of his character, but a strategy aimed at undermining institutions that act as a check on power

Image: The New European

If you had the misfortune to sit through Boris Johnson’s latest lie-athon at the liaison committee, you may have noticed a bald, dapper gentleman sitting behind him, to whom at a key moment the prime minister turned.

The gentleman in question is a civil servant named Nicholas Howard, who has supported several prime ministers, my old boss Tony Blair among them, in preparing them for their appearances in parliament. His forte is factual research.

The key moment came when Labour MP Stephen Timms said to Johnson: “In the Commons, you have said nine times that the number of people in work is higher now than before the start of the pandemic,” before adding: “I think you recognise those statements are incorrect.” Johnson dealt with the question about his nine lies by telling another one: “I think I took steps to correct the record earlier.”

“Have you?” asked Timms. “Ah! I had not seen that.”

“I think I have,” lied Johnson again, turning to Howard behind him as he did so. From the civil servant, used to Johnson’s ways, came not a flicker of reaction. Clearly, he could not confirm Johnson’s statement, because he knew it to be untrue, and unlike his boss, would not feel comfortable lying to a meeting of parliamentary committee chairs. But equally, he would have felt uncomfortable about correcting Johnson, for that would have put them both in a difficult position and probably, if Johnson’s “deputy heads must roll” approach to Partygate is anything to go by, put Howard out of a job.

Both decent, honest, hard-working civil servants like him, and less decent, dishonest and not-so-hard-working ministers, are dragged down to Johnson’s level by his incessant lying. Ministers debase themselves repeatedly as they traipse around studios either repeating Johnson’s lies, or pretending he hasn’t uttered them. Civil servants are debased in knowing that one of their key functions – speaking truth to power – is rendered irrelevant when we have a prime minister for whom truth simply has no value, meaning or significance.

I am currently reading a book by the Venezuelan writer, Moisés Naím, The Revenge of Power, subtitled “how autocrats are reinventing politics for the 21st century”. There is something shaming to see Johnson – and the Brexit that made him PM – featuring large among the rogues’ gallery of lying, anti-democratic, rule-of-lawdefying leaders analysed by Naím.

Formerly a minister, and ex-executive director of the World Bank, he coins the phrase “3P autocrats”, explaining that they are “political leaders who reach power through a reasonably democratic election and then set out to dismantle the checks on executive power through populism, polarisation and post-truth. As they consolidate their power, they cloak their autocratic plans behind walls of secrecy, bureaucratic obfuscation, pseudolegal subterfuge, manipulation of public opinion, and the repression of critics and adversaries. Once the mask comes off, it’s too late.”

I am sure we can all recognise the likes of Putin, Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Chávez and Orbán in that. But be in no doubt, Johnson is well down the same track, and neither our parliament nor our media seems properly alive to it yet.

“People in rich, developed democracies were long used to a comfortable, somewhat smug feeling that what happens politically in the poor countries has nothing to do with them,” writes Naím. “But after Trump and Brexit, that confidence lies in tatters. Turns out that the tactics that worked there can work here, too.” It really is time that MPs, and the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, understood that Johnson’s lying is not simply a question of his character. It is a strategy aimed at undermining any of the institutions that might act as a check on power. It is therefore an assault on democracy.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak may be smarter and smoother than Johnson, but he too clearly thinks rules are for others, not him. Seeking to equate legitimate questions about whether he is operating sanctions double standards when it comes to his wife’s financial interests with someone making jokes about an actor’s wife’s hair loss suggests a man keen to play the victim, but also a total ignorance of the ministerial code. The code makes clear that ministers must not only declare their own financial interests, but those of their spouse and other close family members.

So it could certainly be argued that Sunak should have disclosed not just his fabulously wealthy wife’s financial interests, but his even more fabulously wealthy father-in-law’s, too. I have long thought Sunak’s vast wealth would become a real political problem for him, and given how many people he is pushing into poverty right now, so it should.

Hats off to Rory Stewart, co-host of our new podcast, The Rest Is Politics, for the best April fool. His announcement that he had been appointed No 10 communications director by Boris Johnson fooled loads of people, including the BBC, which briefly had it running as a breaking story along the bottom of the screen on the News Channel. My daughter, Grace, was also taken in, calling to tell me I had to dump him as podcast partner forthwith. And she is a comedian, who can normally spot a joke a mile off.

If you tune in this week, you will hear that the podcast has a new sponsor, none other than The New European, and no, it was not my idea, but editor-in- chief Matt Kelly’s. Anyway, hopefully, it is a mutually beneficial tie-up, rooted in the thinking of one of our listeners that “hearing you and Rory Stewart talk politics is just the best ‘Centrist Dad porn imaginable’”. I’m not sure if that’s how Matt sees The New European, but it’s good to be working with him on a new front.

Never having been a skier, last weekend was my first time in Zermatt, the Swiss resort where a family friend was getting married. It was impossible not to be struck by the beauty of the place, but I was alarmed to hear from a local that “there is about 30% less snow than there used to be”. Climate change in action.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery I made in Switzerland is that bagpipes don’t like altitude. I was asked to play outside the church as the guests filed in, and when my tutor, Finlay MacDonald of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, heard clips on social media, he texted me: “Are you playing at altitude? Your top notes are a bit sharp.” Indeed I was, 2,200 metres above sea level, and indeed they were.

Bagpipes are not that keen on the wet or the cold either, which all makes it a bit of a surprise that they are Scotland’s national instrument. When I discussed the weather effect phenomenon with jazz musician Jim Tomlinson, he said altitude also played havoc with the saxophone, though he said this was less important than the effect on bagpipes, because “the sax is the national instrument of basements”.

From Switzerland to France, and I may as well admit it, I’ve just landed in Côte d’Ivoire for a couple of conferences I am speaking at. Sorry, Greta.

If you’re wondering why I am calling it Côte d’Ivoire, rather than Ivory Coast, it’s because the Ivorians do not like having the name of their country translated into other languages, and in their diplomacy they refuse to accept such translations. So it is Côte d’Ivoire, OK? Take note Germans… Elfenbeinküste indeed! (I learned that in my German homework last week.)

So, after the snow of Switzerland, then freezing France, now it’s 30-plus degrees, high humidity, and my latest obsession – cold-water swimming – has taken a bit of a blow. The water temperature in the sea off Abidjan is 28 degrees. I am sure your heart is bleeding for me! Don’t worry. I’ll survive.

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