Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

Boris Johnson’s journalistic past is the root cause of his coming political demise

A career learning how to get away with it in UK newspapers was poor training for telling lies as a Prime Minister

Boris Johnson, the journalist, at his desk. Photo: Getty Images

There is an unspoken irony about the journalistic indignation flooding newspapers over Boris Johnson and his lies.

The irony is that the cack-handed lies and cover-ups spewing from Number 10 is not borne of a political culture, but a journalistic one.

It’s not that Boris Johnson necessarily tells more lies than his predecessors, it’s just that no PM before him has ever been so damn blasé about how they went about it.

This astonishing carelessness, now catching up with him fast, is the product of an upbringing in the bosom of UK newspapers, where facts could be flexible, truth was subjective and its presentation a question of “angle”.

He’s never made the transition away his journalistic belief that you can bluff your way out of trouble, and if not it will all blow over soon enough. Yesterday’s fish and chip paper, after all. Until that was banned by Brussels (another Johnson fiction).

After being sacked by The Times for attributing an invented quote to historian Colin Lucas, who happened to be his godfather, he learned not how to tell the truth, but how to avoid getting caught telling lies.

Stories would be twisted out of all recognition or outright invented but the question in Boris Johnson’s head was never can I prove this is true? rather can anyone prove this is not true? He trod that line like a high-wire artist.

At The Daily Telegraph, he finessed the art of the euromyth, inventing nonsense stories like an EU plan for one-size-fits-all eurocoffins and a department policing the bend in a bananas. It was all bullshit, but when it kept resulting in profile and promotion, who cared?

It was, however, very poor training for the kind of cunning, cynical and calculated approach required when you up the ante and start telling lies in public office. Different rules apply.

People aren’t daft. They know their politicians tell lies, but have a reasonable expectation they will at least be clever about it. When voters suspect a politician can’t even be bothered covering the tracks efficiently, they begin to wonder what kind of half-wit they’ve gone and elected. That’s a feeling that burns inside.

Prime Minister Johnson’s apparent conviction he can talk his way out of trouble is every inch that of a chancer hack haggling over interpretation of facts in some dodgy story with a newspaper in-house lawyer.

No other PM of recent decades would behave this way. They’d get someone else to do the lying for them, or say nothing at all. The cleverest would work out it’s better to actually tell the truth and move on.

That third option – simply owning up and telling the truth; the option he should have so clearly taken in this case – would never occur to Boris Johnson. Every one of his neuron pathways was forged in the craft of journalistic blagging, not the finer art of political calculus.

Johnson’s coming downfall, at the hands of those who understand him best, newspaper journalists, is a form of karmic cannibalism we’ve never seen before.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us