A new book by Peter Oborne chronicles Boris Johnson’s history of deceit and how his time in Downing Street has poisoned British political culture.
In an interview with the American television network CBS earlier this month Boris Johnson sought to reassure president Joe Biden that he would do nothing to harm the Good Friday agreement.
Johnson tried to fudge the question of whether he would guarantee to keep the border open, but when cornered by CBS’s Margaret Brennan he said: “We want to make sure that there’s free movement, north-south, free movement east-west, and we guarantee the rights of the people of Northern Ireland, of course.”
The prime minister had better hope that a copy of political commentator Peter Oborne’s new book, The Assault on Truth, does not find its way into the Oval office, for it shows that Boris Johnson’s word means nothing. He lies, and lies, and lies, sometimes because it’s in his interests to deceive, sometimes just out of habit. You can tell when he’s lying – you can see his lips move.
We’re not talking here about the evasions and half-truths that are and have always been part of political life. Oborne’s short, readable, accessible and damning book is a record of a life spent in the shadowy world that natural liars inhabit, where truth is a tradeable commodity.
Johnson’s Conservative Party doctored a video of Keir Starmer, then shadow Brexit secretary, to make it look as though Starmer did not know what to say when asked about Labour’s Brexit position. In fact, Starmer answered the question, immediately and fluently.
During the 2019 election, Johnson said the government was building 40 new hospitals, that it recruited 20,000 extra police officers, that Labour’s spending plans had been costed at £1.2 trillion, that Jeremy Corbyn opposed home ownership and wanted to abolish Britain’s armed forces. Each statement was a lie.
Johnson visited a hospital and told the doctors he had given up drink, the day after he was photographed drinking whisky in a distillery, and the day before he was photographed drinking beer in a brewery. This gained him nothing. Natural liars often can’t break the habit.
Brexit of course is built upon lies, and Johnson’s were the most egregious. Everyone knows about the NHS’s extra £350 million a week, which even Nigel Farage blanched at – it’s become such a cliché that one forgets how cruel a deception it was.
But Johnson also said several times that there would be no customs checks or controls for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, when he knew there would. He continued telling this lie even after his revised deal with the EU in October 2019 made it clear that such checks and controls would be in force.
After agreeing it, Johnson told parliament: “There will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Oborne writes: “This barefaced lie in all its moral squalor remains on the Commons order paper.” At a pre-election press conference in Kent Johnson repeated the lie, and he told Andrew Marr: “No tariffs, no checks.”
As the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson reported that the EU planned to blow up the Berlaymont Building and replace it by “a kilometre high skyscraper topped by a communications mast”. He wrote that the EU wanted to standardise coffin sizes, to ban British pink sausages and prawn cocktail crisps, to standardise condom sizes because Italians had smaller penises, and much else that was not true.
A Treasury dossier warning of painful short term consequences from a no-deal Brexit was leaked to the Sunday Times when Johnson was saying a no-deal Brexit would be fine. Johnson’s government falsely claimed that it was an old, outdated document which had been deliberately leaked to sabotage the government’s position in talks with the EU.
A Number 10 source said the leaker was former chancellor Philip Hammond. Downing Street falsely claimed to be investigating prominent Remainers Dominic Grieve, Hilary Benn and Oliver Letwin for “their involvement with foreign powers and the funding of their activities”.
In the pandemic, the prime minister falsely claimed to have brought in lockdown in care homes before the general lockdown. The pandemic has also provided several stunning examples of his government handing out contracts to friends and political donors.
These are but a taster of the lies catalogued in Oborne’s sober, remorseless book. We knew about many of them before, but putting them all together shows us the kind of man our prime minister is.
Oborne is an old-fashioned Conservative who, if he had been writing in 1961, would have been as horrified as Harold Macmillan and Lord Hailsham were that cabinet minister John Profumo should lie to the House of Commons.
A Brexiter (albeit one who publicly changed his mind in 2019), a product of Sherborne and Cambridge who started his career in corporate finance before moving to journalism, a practising Anglican whose wife is an Anglican priest, he worked on the Spectator magazine when Boris Johnson was its editor.
He is an authentic product of the British governing class, old-fashioned enough to believe that the governing class has duties as well as rights. The new establishment – the Johnsons, the Cummingses – seems to think it only has rights.
He has sacrificed a lot for stepping out of line. His excellent living and his platform in right wing newspapers have been taken away. As he frankly admits, he could afford it where others cannot – he is in his sixties, financially secure and coming to the end of his career – but it’s a sacrifice nonetheless.
I first met him after Blair had resigned as prime minister, when investigative journalist David Hencke and I were working on a book about Blair’s burgeoning post-Downing Street commercial empire. Oborne had just done a documentary on the same subject, and he generously gave us his unused information and the leads he had not been able to follow up successfully.
In those days, all three of us were shocked by Blair. I doubt whether any of us would feel quite the same today. “As a liar, [Johnson] cannot be compared to Tony Blair…. Standards of truth-telling collapsed at the precise moment Boris Johnson and his associates entered 10 Downing Street in the early afternoon of 24 July 2019,” writes Oborne.
Why do Britons allow themselves to be governed by a man they know cannot be trusted? There are philosophical and historical forces at work, and Oborne examines these. But a lot of it is chance. Johnson has been very lucky in his opponents. In particular, writes Oborne: “Johnson had the good luck to be faced by Jeremy Corbyn – in a general election gifted to him by Corbyn’s decision to allow him to hold it at all.”
The Assault on Truth – Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism, by Peter Oborne, is published by Simon and Schuster
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