The cheerleaders who have let Boris Johnson get away with it
- Credit: Getty Images
Boris Johnson's faults and failings are blindingly obvious, but the media don't seem interested in that story
It was a great question.
"When the history books are written, will Boris Johnson still get away with it?"
It was asked by a woman in the Q and A when I spoke at the Wimbledon Book Festival, and though social distancing meant the usual 600 capacity was reduced to less than half that, my God was it nice to be at a real event with real people in a real public place, a big tent on Wimbledon Common.
Reassuring too, after a big response here to my recent column bemoaning the apathy and lack of rage at this "incompetent, morally corrupt, shape-shifting, truth-twisting, manifesto-promise-breaking, rule-smashing, gaslighting government full of right-wing rogues and anything-for-power charlatans" that there was plenty of rage, fear and loathing of them in this largely middle-aged, middle class audience in a Tory seat; but with it so much frustration that the government appears to be getting away with so much.
That Johnson will be in 'the history books' is already settled. There have been 55 prime ministers since Robert Walpole became the first around three hundred years ago, and all are to greater and lesser extents ‘historical’ figures. Like it or not, Johnson, even if he left tomorrow, is already on the ‘greater extent’ side of the ledger, the Brexit in which he has played such a key role being an event of genuinely historic import, however it plays out in the future.
As to how history will see him, that depends on what happens as post-Brexit Britain unfolds, and what happens in the rest of Johnson’s career and life. Though I, and doubtless many regular readers of The New European, are fairly settled in our view that Brexit is a calamitous act of national self-harm, none of us can predict with accuracy future events and their consequences. And of course, there is nobody, dead or alive, for whom history has a single, clearly defined historical view that endures forever. It was clear however from the woman’s question – key word ‘still’ – that she thinks history should take a very negative view of the current occupant of Number 10.
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"Will he still get away with it?"
Her ‘still’ carried with it a hint of exasperation, that a man could tell so many lies, make so many mistakes, display so many character flaws, but ‘get away with it’. The lies and false promises, just a tiny fraction of which were featured on last week’s front page, helped deliver the biggest constitutional change to our country of recent times, with consequences both foreseen and unforeseen that have done damage to our economy, our trading arrangements, our ability to travel and do business, the Northern Ireland peace process, our power, our rights, and our standing in the world.
Yet the scale of his Brexit getting away with it was such that he was elevated to the highest elected office in the land on the back of it. Then Covid-19 provided a perfect breeding ground for the character flaws and mistakes to come together and deliver one of the worst pandemic mismanagements anywhere in the world, his getting away with it largely down to a successful vaccination programme, one good thing serving, with the media’s help, to drown out so much that was bad.
So ‘still’ he is well ahead in the polls and, as we gathered in the big tent, he was grandstanding on the world stage, with much of our media, print and broadcast, coming over as a cross between a BoJo advertorial and a Cornwall Tourist Board promotional campaign.
That Cornwall is a lovely holiday destination, at a time when thanks to the mistakes, travel guidance chaos and PCR-test rip-off-ology, more and more people are looking to holiday at home, is beyond doubt. That the Johnson we know – and that includes the journalists reporting on him – bears any real resemblance to the Johnson they were describing in reports that could have been written and edited in Number 10 or Tory HQ – is less certain.
There seems to me little doubt that the nature of the Westminster media is a big part in the public perception that standards in public life are not what they were. Two recent all too typical examples. Vote Leave and Tory Party donor Peter Cruddas, elevated to the House of Lords after Johnson overruled the Appointments Commission which sought to block the peerage over allegations from his time as Tory treasurer, made a £500,000 donation three days after taking his seat. It doesn’t look good, does it? Barely a murmur in the media. Just not, so far as most of them are concerned, a big deal. When did this kind of lack of interest by the fourth estate become normal? But what happens when the majority pro-Johnson papers decide to ignore a big story is that all too often the broadcasters follow suit and, unless the opposition makes news on the issue, it tends to die.
Then there was Michael Gove's unlawful awarding of a major contract to a firm run by pals of him and Dominic Cummings from their time together making a mess of education. Unlawful. That means breaking the law, by the way. And Gove is not merely a senior minister, he is a former justice secretary and lord chancellor. He has sworn an oath to uphold the rule of law. Yet the government response to the ruling was simply to say they disagreed with it, attack the Good Law Project who brought the case, and then issue a statement which wilfully misrepresented what the judgement actually said. Under any previous government, the media would have kept at such a story for days, weeks.
They ‘get away with it’ because so many in the media let them, and because the opposition, without that media interest, have yet to work out how to deal with a government quite as dishonest and unscrupulous as this one.
There were times I had to give up watching or listening when the debate about the UK-EU row over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements was raging. So many words, so many interviews, but so few ministers challenged on the simple fact – remember them? – that Johnson made specific promises that there would be NO BORDER CHECKS between GB and NI, when he knew at the time that was not the case. So they developed a new lie to deal with the mess created by the old lies… he only meant for goods going from NI to GB, they said, not the other way. Not true. There is film of him saying so. Why don’t they ever play it, to remind their listeners and viewers?
At least Sky’s Beth Rigby and Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon put some tough questions to Johnson over the Northern Ireland Protocol, essentially pointing out he was either ignorant or lying when he signed it, and that the other leaders had no reason to trust him (which by the way they don’t.) But as they did so, I realised how rare it was that they got to question him at all, and doubtless Johnson will be making sure it is a long time before they do so again. We have a prime minister who resents scrutiny, whether from media or MPs, and can’t understand why all papers can’t be like the Express, and all MPs simple lobby fodder.
I remember once flying with Tony Blair to an overseas summit – I think it was in Japan – when we came back from seeing the travelling press at the back of the plane, and he wondered aloud why we took them with us, such was their determination to find the most negative stories they could. "It’s like a football team taking the away fans with them."
It strikes me that Johnson, despite signalling contempt for the non boss-class media in so many ways – very controlled access and limited scrutiny, not even allowed in the building for Covid briefings, no follow-up questions, pictures increasingly provided by Number 10, curbs on Freedom of Information – treats the working journalists as the away team; and they in the main treat him like they are part of the home team. Weird. But essential to his getting away with it.
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