The Big Lie Comes to British Politics
It was a standout moment in a largely uneventful campaign. “Forgive me Mr. Johnson,” asked the ITV presenter in late November, “. . . but does the truth matter in this election?”
There was a moment of silence. Then, just as soon as a “I think it does” emerged from the prime minister’s mouth, the studio audience—balanced to reflect party affiliations—burst out into spontaneous and unrestrained laughter.
If the 2019 U.K. general election is remembered for anything, it will be the legitimization of the lie as a negotiable political currency. America may be used to this by now. For Britons, it is new.
Fake news, of course, has always been an issue in British elections. The centrist Liberal Democrats—perennially marketing themselves as the “nice guys”—are notorious for their willingness to use dirty tricks and smears on their doorstep leaflets. This year their bag of tricks included phony bar charts and deliberately bent statistics.
You could also make the argument that the entire Labour Party manifesto for the 2019 election was a fiction. It promised a massive spending spree with free university education, free childcare, and even free broadband for every home alongside a huge program of re-nationalization. And who would pay for this Santa’s sack of free gifts? Only those earning more than £80,000 a year, apparently.
Nonetheless there appears to have been a step-change in what is seen as permissible fibbing within British politics. No least, the usually sober Conservative party, traditionally the bearers of the stiffest upper lips, were ready to peddle simple untruths on an unprecedented scale without any appearance of shame.
Even loyal Tories privately admitted to being aghast at the industrial-scale dishonesty from what used to be a morally-superior party that used to sell itself as the adult in the room. To borrow from Hilaire Belloc’s famous poem about Matilda, they told “such dreadful lies it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.”
As most of Britain breathes a sigh of relief at being spared Jeremy Corbyn’s revolutionary socialist vision for the country, many of the more conservative Conservatives are having qualms about the reputational costs of the campaign and grandees such as Lord (Michael) Heseltine and Sir John Major seem genuinely shocked at how low their successors were ready to stoop.
A major example came right at the end of the six week campaign. On the very day that Treasury civil servants released a paper showing in detail that Johnson’s E.U. withdrawal bill would indeed involve businesses in mainland Great Britain needing to file customs paperwork to send goods to Northern Ireland, the prime minister in an interview simply declared that this was untrue.
Bafflement, all round. But also a shrugging of shoulders. Brexit aside, after all, this Conservative campaign focused on two other key areas: law and order and the National Health Service. On policing, the party manifesto pledged that 20,000 new Bobbies would be on the beat. On health, the public were promised 50,000 new nurses for the staff-starved hospital sector and 40 new hospitals.
Except that it immediately became obvious that the new policemen would simply replace the 20,000 police jobs that the party had axed in austerity measures over the previous nine years; the 40 hospitals were actually plans to refurbish just six, with the remaining 34 only being built at some time in the future, when budgets allowed; and the 50,000 nurses included 19,000 who would be ‘retained’ from the current establishment.
Even after they were exposed, these three nuclear-grade distortions were nevertheless repeated by every Tory candidate—not least the PM—on doorsteps across the country, throughout the campaign.
In the U.K., economy with the facts was a habit perfected during the E.U. referendum. Over the course of the three years since the “Leave” campaign promised that quitting the E.U. would free up £350 million a week for the National Health Service—the true figure was about two-thirds of this number—there has been a loosening of inhibitions about telling untruths.
One of the few cardinal sins punishable by expulsion in the House of Commons is to charge another member of Parliament with lying. To dodge this, the roguish boulevardier MP Alan Clark once lapsed into French, admitting he had been “economical with the actualité”—a concept originally coined by the Tory philosopher, Edmund Burke.
But to what extent is the new brazenness a product of social media and the cultural climate nurtured in the United States?
The answer is probably some, but not most. Yet the Twitterer-in-chief in Washington has certainly led the way in brazenness—a license that the man he called “Britain-Trump” was happy to emulate.
In fact, Britain’s triumphant Boris Johnson has his own remarkable 30-year track record of economy with the facts. His first real job at the Times was abruptly terminated when he was found to have made up a quote which he had attributed to an old Oxford tutor.
As the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels he filed a series of distorted—or simply made-up—stories about outrageous behavior by the European Commission establishing regulations, for example, about the bendiness of bananas and the size of Italian condoms. These dispatches created a sensation and an arms race by news desks on other papers to get their own correspondents to file similar accounts of Euro-outrages.
Not only did this create an entire new genre of E.U. reporting, all based on grotesque distortions or outright untruths, it also fueled much of the anti-European tide that gave impetus to the foundation of Nigel Farage’s tiny UK Independence Party and, ultimately, to 2016’s Brexit referendum.
Later in his career as a shadow minister in Michael Howard’s opposition team, Johnson described an allegation of an affair with an employee as “an inverted pyramid of piffle.” But this, too, was a lie and when the allegation was proved to be true, Johnson had to resign his post.
During the election campaign, the conservative journalist, Peter Oborne, a one-time friend of Johnson and his political editor when in charge of the London Spectator, was so appalled he launched a website tracking his former boss’s economies with the actualite. Over 100 examples are traced since September alone, including such classic moments as Johnson’s claim on a hospital visit that the occasion was not a PR stunt.
When a patient complained about it being a stunt to Johnson, the PM replied, “There are no press here.” This exchange was captured by a BBC camera crew not ten feet away.
Johnson’s cavalier approach to reality was reflected in the willingness of normally robustly combative but above-board Conservative Campaign Headquarters to try its hand at bamboozling the electorate. During a TV debate, the Tory Press Office relabeled their Twitter feed “FactcheckUK”—and went on to endorse the PM’s claims as verified “facts.”
The Conservative Central Office’s black arts also included putting out on Twitter a recut broadcast by Sir Keir Starmer—Labour’s Brexit Secretary—with long pauses inserted, suggesting that he was uncertain, hesitant, and incoherent about his party’s stance on key issues.
When challenged on this, no less than Dominic Raab, holder of the once revered post of Foreign Secretary, simply said: “No one gives a toss about social media cut and thrust.”
When Andrew Neil, the U.K.’s most formidable TV interviewer, made clear that “trust” would be the focus of his scheduled interview with the prime minister in the last of his party leader encounters, Johnson pulled out.
Integrity, character, and trustworthiness were not part of the Tory game plan.
So what is the public to make of this degeneration of political debate? The truth is in the febrile and exhausted atmosphere of Brexit Britain, the vast majority of people want only peace and quiet. General cynicism with the political class is ubiquitous. But that something serious has been lost is acknowledged even by people relieved that Corbynism was defeated.
Yet what does it mean when the prime minister’s word is acknowledged not to be his bond? And how easy is that going to make negotiating the most complex U.K.-E.U. trade deal in Britain’s history?
Tacitly, Johnson has had to acknowledge his untrustworthiness problem. In the Queen’s Speech, which outlined the new administration’s program for government, he inserted clauses into the E.U. Withdrawal Bill guaranteeing that the U.K. will complete a new trade deal with the E.U. by the end of next year—a guarantee that is not within his gift.
The gesture was evidence that the prime minister is aware that his promises are a devalued currency. More can be found in the financial markets.
The bounce in the value of the pound sterling and in the stockmarkets that followed the Tory victory dropped back a bit when the new legislative promise to complete the trade deal by the end of 2020 was made. But not much. The markets, it seems, are confident that the prime minister’s undertaking is reversible and “just for now”—more or less as ignorable as his claim this summer that he would “die in a ditch” if the U.K. was not out of the E.U. by October 31, 2019. (The U.K. is still in the E.U. and Johnson is alive and well.)
The very fact that the markets bounced up again is an indication that they believe Johnson will ignore his pledges if he needs to.
Everyone is at it now after all.