Prime Minister’s serial dishonesty has made his words meaningless. Even in the world of politics, this is an especially shabby way to govern
Political lies are as old as the practice of politics. Otto von Bismarck, the man who unified Germany, once observed that “people never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election".
But what Boris Johnson has done is to make dishonesty central to his politics in a way which is highly unusual; lies fill the vacuum which ideology would normally occupy.
Routinely misleading on matters big and small has helped him win power and a vast Commons majority, but the limitations of this amoral approach are becoming unavoidable.
Mr Johnson’s biggest lie was about the NI Protocol, and it is this miscalculation which now hangs like a millstone around the weakening neck of a man who can feel the water rising.
The Prime Minister’s claims about the protocol were central to his landslide election victory in 2019 — not because most British voters cared passionately about Northern Ireland, but because the narrative constructed by Mr Johnson presented him as the strong man who finally cut through years of wrangling to “get Brexit done”.
In fact, the protocol had not resolved any of the problems which he himself had identified with Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
Despite his frivolity, Mr Johnson is not a stupid man.
He knew that his deal ensured an Irish Sea border from the outset; in that regard, it was arguably even worse that Mrs May’s deal when judged against his own criteria for denouncing her backstop.
His own government’s analysis was undeniably clear.
The Treasury’s assessment was that the protocol would be “highly disruptive to the NI economy”, would push up prices, and would mean “NI symbolically separated from the Union”.
Another Whitehall assessment said that implementing the Irish Sea border entailed "security, social and economic impacts".
And the 69-page impact assessment which accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement Bill clearly said firms would face “ongoing costs of completing administration for movement of goods between GB and NI”.
It noted that for agri-food products and other goods there would be new costs which would not go away and set out some of the new array of EU documentation required for British firms selling to Northern Ireland: “Goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be required to complete both import declarations and Entry Summary (ENS) Declarations because the UK will be applying the EU’s Universal Customs Code in Northern Ireland. This will result in additional administrative costs to businesses.”
It stated explicitly that Northern Ireland “will be required to align with certain EU VAT and excise rules”, said that goods arriving in NI from GB would undergo regulatory checks to ensure they complied with EU standards, referred to new “border inspection posts” and said that there would be fees charged for the inspection of all the new documentation, noting that the EU minimum fee for this was €55 (something not yet enforced).
No prime minister could remain unaware of these basic facts about his most controversial policy, and no prime minister having familiarised himself with those facts could honestly claim there would be no Irish Sea border.
However, rather than confront that reality and attempt to explain why he had recanted on his past position, Mr Johnson consistently misrepresented the reality of his “fantastic deal”. In December 2019, he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: "There's no question of there being checks on goods going NI/GB or GB/NI".
But some awkward truths cannot be buried in denial. With the reality of even a partial Irish Sea border having unnerved unionism, alarmed some Tory MPs and dismayed businesses told they could keep unfettered trade, Mr Johnson is now attempting to tear up the heart of protocol — or at least, that’s what he claims to want.
But now few people on either side of this debate or in any party believe the Prime Minister.
The EU, which has reluctantly accepted that the protocol has created real problems which must be addressed, might in other circumstances negotiate a new deal with a politician less irredeemably dishonest than Mr Johnson.
But what is the point of negotiating hard with someone who is going to lie about the outcome and probably bin that in a year or two?
Almost everyone now accepts that the problems with the protocol are real and what was originally agreed should not be implemented in full. But Mr Johnson’s stated plan — to legislate to disapply swathes of the protocol — is severely undermining Britain’s standing in the world.
Mr Johnson is threatening to break his own agreement because his lies about it have been exposed. The worst possible outcome here would involve months of Mr Johnson crushing the global credibility of the UK, while ultimately betraying unionists a second time by abandoning the protocol-dismantling legislation, thus adding to instability in Northern Ireland.
It was briefed from within the Government that the legislation would be published yesterday, then today, then Friday. Now it appears unlikely before next week.
Mr Johnson is no longer really in power. The scale of the rebellion against his leadership this week shows that he now doesn’t truly command a Commons majority.
He can limp along by making promises to all sides, but he cannot deliver those promises through legislation.
This week the philosophical father of Brexit, Lord Hannan, wrote that Mr Johnson needs to be prepared to be “like a good teacher” who is willing to be disliked.
The influential Tory peer said that the protocol legislation would be “an almost immediate test” of whether his premiership can be saved and must immediately remove the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Ominously for Mr Johnson, he added: “The Prime Minister, in short, has one chance to recover. He won’t get another.”
Although Mr Johnson is also under pressure from moderate Tories dismayed at tearing up the protocol, he is likely to side for now with the Eurosceptics.
But the real test is not what’s on the page, or what comes from his mouth, but whether this legislation becomes law.
Even in the world of politics, where half-truths are routine and outright lies not unknown, this is an especially shabby way in which to govern.
No one can be sure what Mr Johnson will do next week, no one can be sure what he really believes and no one around him has the certainty of direction required for coherent government.
Such anarchical behaviour is not only most unconservative, but demonstrably destructive.
The most remarkable aspect is the simplicity of its source: lies.