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Politics is moving back to a battlefield which does not suit Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson meets AC-12 in a Line of Duty mock-up for The New European - Credit: The New European

The prime minister has miscalculated on the current sleaze scandal and it will cost him dear

During the Brexit referendum, among the pleading emails I occasionally sent to David Cameron’s team were several urging them to hit back far harder against the lies being told by Boris Johnson and the Leave campaign.

There were two main reasons why these fell on largely deaf ears. First, Cameron was confident Remain was going to win, that the economic arguments being pumped out by him and chancellor George Osborne would eventually prevail. Wrong.

Second, that once he had won, he would need to bring the warring factions back together in a united post-referendum Tory government. He saw Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as big Tory beasts made bigger by their roles as Leave leaders, he knew they would have to be re-integrated into the team, and so ‘blue on blue’ attacks were to be discouraged. Mistake.

It meant that one side in the war was fighting with Kalashnikovs and the other using popguns. Leave, shocked that Remain was not firing back, realised the traditional rules of campaign engagement were irrelevant… they could say and do what the hell they wanted to, up to and including industrial scale lying supplemented by breaches of electoral law.

They could hardly believe their luck. And what a bonus to have someone like Johnson leading the charge, with his track record on the delivery of lies in journalism, and as London mayor. Even as Cameron’s side insisted ‘no blue on blue’, Leave merely spotted yet another weakness, and went for it, blue on blue, black and blue the result.

As soon as they realised they could get away with one big lie, they decided, the lying is working, the bigger the better. ‘More money for the NHS’ was but the most famous of many. ‘No prospect of leaving the single market’. ‘No extra border checks’. ‘Less red tape’. ‘Turkey joining the EU’. The Brextremist media lapped it up, ventilated it, begged for more. The reasonable media went for the balanced approach… Report what one side said today, report the other, say why they were saying it, cut to vox pops, two Leave, two Remain … correspondent upsum ‘time alone will tell…’

There were several points at which I sent a message to George Osborne, saying that unless he and Cameron called out the lies and myths properly, they were conceding a huge advantage. I urged him to go further, and suggest that Johnson was showing himself to be unfit for office, what with the scale of his lies and the scale of his attacks on other countries, other cultures, other peoples, other leaders, up to and including Barack Obama, having already gone for his future best friend, and his future former best friend, Donald Trump… (side note, that Theresa May made him foreign secretary when she became prime minister in the wake of the referendum underlined once more that this whole wretched Brexit tale has been about the rivalries and ambitions in the Tory Party, not the interests of the country.)

The one-sided blue on blue Brexit ban all came back to me as I watched Johnson announce, with all the sombre gravity he could muster, what he knew would be headlined as a ‘probe into Cameron’, and what he also knew would quickly draw in chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Matt Hancock. Sunak’s slick PR show has been doing too well for too long, while though Johnson knows it would be tricky to throw his health supremo overboard mid-pandemic, he also knows Hancock has deep down never moved from negative views about Johnson barely concealed when I interviewed him for GQ during the May premiership. Look it up online.

Johnson was right, of course, that Cameron took the hottest of the heat as the Greensill fire refused to die down amid some rare proper journalism, and his ignition of it through the inquiry sent the flames around his predecessor’s Cotswolds shed shooting even higher.

Yet might it be, that just as Cameron’s downfall as prime minister came as the result of his confusion of tactics and strategy – putting the tactic of a referendum ahead of a strategy for the UK in Europe – Johnson has made a similar error.

The tactic of an inquiry got him the bad headlines for Cameron that he hoped they would, thereby deflecting from scandals of his own, whether on Covid contracts, Jennifer Arcuri and more, and deflecting too from his wilful negligence on Northern Ireland, which was getting Brexit back where he doesn’t want it – under scrutiny, reality catching up with lies.

But it has played into the hands of those rare souls who have been trying to make Johnson’s character, and his role in the denigration of standards in public life, an issue for some time.

I would urge to you to memorise, as I have done, an acronym. HOOSIAL. Honesty. Openness. Objectivity. Selflessness. Integrity. Accountability. Leadership.

They are the seven so-called ‘Nolan Principles of Public Life’, brought into being when John Major, a Colossus set against those who lead the Tory Party and govern the country today, realised the sleaze of a previous generation of Conservative government had to be addressed.

I have re-ordered them from Nolan’s original to make them easier to remember, HOOSIAL, but remember them we should. They go to the heart of what is going wrong with our politics and our public life. And to all opposition parties, I say there is a big campaign to be run on the basis of every single one of the HOOSIAL seven. Johnson and his cabinet breach them every single day. And if politics and media let them keep breaking them, our democracy as we know it is finished.

Politics … and media …

Some of you may have seen on Twitter the video compiled by Peter Stefanovic which at the time of writing has been viewed more than ten million times. I know all the arguments about echo chambers, and that Twitter should not be confused with the real world. But that is quite a reach, and he covers just six, a fraction of the lies told. Yet, as Stefanovic points out daily, they have barely been covered or analysed in the media that most people consume. His viral video has had more coverage abroad than here. Similarly, the impact of Brexit, the real impact as opposed to the myths and fantasies, is getting more attention in foreign than domestic media. So weird.

But I am, thanks to Cameron, hopeful. Johnson’s tactic backfired. A story has become a theme. It has gifted the opposition the basis of a campaign which can in turn become a strategy. Do not underestimate how much Joe Biden’s appeal to truth, decency, and values of public service helped him oust Donald Trump, despite Trump’s fanatical base and ability to dominate the media round the clock.

Johnson won Brexit and won a majority by persuading enough people of relatively poor means that he was there for them. He is not. He is there for himself and his mates. He is there for the game. He is there to get away with as much as he can, to make rules for others that need not apply to him and those close to him, to break rules designed to prevent abuse of power, and hope that nobody notices, or cares.

He has got away with it for a long time and, blessed with that same Etonian confidence that proved to be fatal to Cameron, he will be sure he can wriggle out of a lot more sleaze and scandal to come. But something changed last week. In going blue on blue to get Cameron, he helped open a floodgate, and his old ways will not be sufficient to avoid the water from lapping round his ankles, then rising.

Character matters. Standards matter.

Honesty. Openness. Objectivity. Selflessness. Integrity. Accountability. Leadership. They all matter.

Brexit then the government’s handling of the Covid crisis have driven them from the political arena for too long. But they’re back. And they create a battlefield for which few are less suited than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

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