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JAMES BALL: How Johnson has given us Britain’s first post-truth election

Boris Johnson in Cornwall. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

All parties are guilty, but the prime minister has pioneered this new era of dishonesty, says JAMES BALL.

Boris Johnson is interviewed by Andrew Neil. Photograph: BBC. – Credit: Archant

The prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is currently a man who has been fired not once, but twice, for dishonesty. Should voters choose to return him to the role with a personal mandate on December 12, none of them can say they weren’t warned.

When we talk about Boris Johnson’s firings, we’re not talking about ‘little’ lies over a sick day at a summer job, either. He was fired from the Times for fabricating a salacious quote about the Plantagenet king Edward II and his supposed gay lover, from a prominent historian who also happened to be Johnson’s godfather, on the front page of the newspaper.

Johnson’s second firing was from the shadow cabinet for lying to then-Conservative party leader Michael Howard about an extramarital affair.

It is not clear whether it says more about Johnson’s social status or about the state of the two sectors he has worked in – journalism and politics – that neither firing prevented his continued elevation, with him rising to a columnist paid £5-a-word by the Telegraph in one, and to leader of the Conservative party and prime minister in the other.

Boris Johnson. Picture: BBC – Credit: BBC

Johnson’s time as a senior politician hardly promotes any more confidence in his honesty – it was no difficult task to predict the kind of general election campaign he would be the figurehead for, given how 2016’s EU referendum was conducted.

At the core of Vote Leave’s strategy – their strong three-word slogan aside – was the claim that the EU cost the UK “£350 million a week” and “let’s spend that on the NHS instead”. This was the clever kind of grubby untruth that manages to be wrong on multiple levels all at the same time, but in ways that are complicated and hard to correct.

In reality, the spend on the EU was vastly inflated versus its true level, and any ‘extra’ funds from leaving the EU would be consumed by the economic damage that departure would do. But explaining this generally led to Remain politicians or neutral factcheckers giving a deluge of confusing economic statistics that largely still sounded to casual observers like they fitted Leave’s narrative.

Johnson has never seemed to care about lying in his own life. In his journalistic career, after being fired for lying in one newspaper, he went to another – the Telegraph – and as Brussels editor was largely credited with inventing the ‘Euromyth’ category of stories about bendy bananas and banned vacuum cleaners. His political career has also benefitted from a lax attitude to the truth. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s brought that to the 2019 election.

Johnson’s casual relationship with the truth – the two might be photographed together now and then, but it’s certainly not exclusive, darling – has become his political party’s attitude towards the truth. Its 2019 election campaign has become a flurry of s**tposted memes – intentionally bad or odd online material to attract attention and derail other conversations – high-wire stunts against rival parties, and dodgy media briefings based on dubious figures.

No-one has ever claimed elections are periods of peak political honesty, but the 2019 contest is descending into an angry and dishonest mess unique to the internet era – and while Johnson and his Conservatives may be patient zero, the malady has not stopped with them.

The core of the Conservative misinformation strategy is familiar enough, especially for anyone who followed the referendum – they kicked off this campaign with inflated figures on what Labour’s then-unpublished manifesto would cost, which were swiftly splashed across multiple friendly newspapers, with largely unheeded caveats on their shonky maths buried many paragraphs deep.

Things rapidly got weirder and more alarming, though. People quickly noticed a sharp change of tone in tweets and posts from the Conservatives’ Twitter account and those of various senior ministers – weird memes, messages or viral videos. And then, of course, they took things a few steps too far, changing their verified @CCHQPress Twitter handle into an account named “FactCheckUK” – which kept their all important blue tick – and tweeting throughout ITV’s leaders’ debate.

It’s still not clear what Conservative campaign headquarters was actually up to with this stunt – whether they thought people would sincerely believe their partisan posts came from a neutral factchecker service, or whether it was aimed as a wind-up to the media and to Labour activists. Either way, the backlash was clearly stronger than they expected, drawing widespread condemnation, including from usually quiet and independent groups. Needless to say, they didn’t apologise.

This sense of pushing standard campaign tactics – like running spin operations alongside a televised debate – a little further and provoking anger isn’t confined just to that incident, though.

Parties have routinely run adverts against Google searches for their rival parties, often based on one-shot sites (ones designed to be online for a very short period, only a few days or weeks) about specific policies or attacks. But when the Conservatives this time registered and advertised it on Google (with a “paid for by the Conservative Party” credit), it provoked still more backlash and anger. The UK election seems caught in a cycle of parties pushing existing cheeky tactics to their extremes, and their rivals responding with a much higher degree of anger than previously shown.

This goes well beyond the Tories. The Liberal Democrats have long been notorious for their questionable bar charts and data in local campaign leaflets, usually provoking eyerolls and little more, and for running fake newspaper-style election leaflets. But this time they have been attacked for these efforts far more angrily than before.

Labour can hardly claim innocence among this, as much as they would like to. While their activists do s**tposting of their own – the party has no need to do this itself, thanks to its large online activist base – online supporters also get furious at anyone they suspect isn’t fully committed to the party’s cause. Other parties are considered outrageous because they aren’t Labour. Journalists are deemed unacceptable if they aren’t sufficiently onside. But the BBC is by far the worst offender for this crowd, with every dubious editing choice or even errors (like running old footage of Johnson laying a wreath) being taken as proof of dark conspiracy against

This angry and energetic online activist base allows the party and leadership themselves to concentrate on the oldest and most respectable sort of dubious election claims – those relating to policies. No serious policy person believes Labour could get even half of its manifesto done within a term, even if it had the detailed plans already in place, and the most experienced ministerial team in history ready to get cracking.

The party simultaneously promises no-one earning under £80,000 will pay more tax, that even this group will only pay a little more (“£9 a month”), but also that by the end of the parliament they will raise £83 billion more every year. Across all taxes – eventually, all tax (even corporation tax) is directly or indirectly paid by people – that would amount to around £50,000 extra tax a year from each person in the top 5%. This is absolutely impossible (£57,000 a year after tax is enough to put you in the top 5%), but anyone noting that online will quickly be shouted down.

There’s an honest policy argument to make about raising enough tax to fund
an ambitious and energetic state programme, as Labour proposes. But between the swirling misinformation and anger of this election, the party can simply sidestep it. No-one cares about facts, policy, or detail this time round – this is about picking a tribe and running with them.

Nonetheless, the Conservatives are the instigators of making this the post-truth election, and the ones who have shown us that anger and misinformation run together. Once we don’t have facts in which to ground our debate, it quickly becomes an argument and then a shouting match.

And it’s Johnson and his Conservatives who are winning that match so far: At the time of writing the Tory poll lead is closing, but still sizeable. Even more startling, proven liar Johnson is judged the most trustworthy political leader, scoring 28% on a Survation poll, followed by “don’t know / none”, and with his rivals Corbyn and Jo Swinson each polling below 20%.

For those not signed up to one of the tribes on offer, this is an unedifying and ill-tempered election. Unless someone can find a way off our current course, though, it may be the beginning of a new, angrier, normal.

– James Ball is the author of Post Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World, published by Biteback

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