Floundering in the depths of his own dishonesty, Boris Johnson’s grasp on power is becoming desperate. Support for a sudden defenestration is growing among Tory MPs unnerved at a leader whose gaffes are outnumbered only by the lies he has told.
The British prime minister deserves little sympathy. But neither do some of those denouncing him. Voters knew of the deficiencies in Johnson’s character when they rewarded him with a landslide election victory just over two years ago, as did the MPs who chose him. His conduct is shocking by most objective standards, but not by his own.
On the day in May 2020 that one of Johnson’s ministers instructed the public they could “meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay two metres apart”, one of Johnson’s closest aides emailed 100 colleagues an invitation to a social event, finishing with the words: “Bring your own booze.”
As Johnson and his wife partied in the Downing Street garden, next of kin were barred from being with their loved ones as they died alone in hospitals. By that point, the Covid death toll across the UK was more than 36,000.
The May 2020 garden party is one of a reported seven Downing Street parties or other events which are alleged to have broken lockdown rules.
Initially Johnson attempted to deny, distract and disassociate himself from the scandal. But that failed last Tuesday when the “bring your own booze” email was leaked.
It was a hero of Johnson’s, Winston Churchill, who once said: “In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.” Johnson has shown little enthusiasm for swallowing his own words, even when demonstrably inaccurate.
It was therefore a sign of desperation when he relented and on Wednesday delivered a half-apology for what he admitted was his attendance at an event which he accepted should not have happened, yet claimed was not necessarily against the rules.
Johnson has been unusually consistent in how he has behaved. From being sacked by The Times for inventing a quote, to lying about the Irish Sea border which he negotiated, examples of his open disregard for probity are too numerous to list.
Max Hastings, Johnson’s former boss when he was a journalist, repeatedly warned about his unfitness for office. “Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade,” he wrote in one of many savage critiques of his former employee.
Hastings lamented the former Mayor of London’s “contempt for truth” and lack of ideological or moral principles, describing him as someone who “cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification”.
Hastings is no left-wing agitator, but a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, the in-house paper of the Conservative Party. And Johnson wasn’t just an amoral jester, but a nasty individual, he suggested, recounting how his former Brussels Correspondent had made unspecified threats, in writing, if he continued to criticise him.
However, in full knowledge of those and other facts, Tory MPs selected him for the highest political office. Voters responded by endorsing him with the sort of mandate few prime ministers secure.
Johnson’s elevation revealed a society which values entertainment, a sphere in which he excels, over seriousness. There is no other area of life in which so many people would reward a dishonest showman. The idea of choosing a brain surgeon because he’s funny would be preposterous.
Yet the lure of simple slogans such as the promise to “Get Brexit Done” was irresistible for too many voters. It is easy to criticise politicians, but such criticism often involves self-righteous indignation.
Just as many Northern Ireland voters who elect the parties who fail to make Stormont work complain that Stormont is not working, so voters who put Johnson in office are now expressing disgust at how he has behaved.
In a democracy we get who we choose and therefore bear some responsibility for their actions, particularly when the nature of their shortcomings was clear all along.
Machiavelli argued a prince should be willing to lie and cheat — and even kill — if he is to retain power; virtue and honesty will be seen as weakness and he will be overthrown.
It is true that dishonesty can work in the short term, putting off the day of reckoning — as it did for Johnson it seemed. Some lies will never be found out, emboldening the liar. However, if dishonesty becomes routine, it is inevitable some of them will unravel.
Johnson personifies the pragmatic case against embedding lies in politics. Even setting aside morality, a government built on deceit is creating avoidable problems which at some point will become insurmountable.
Johnson is not the first prime minister to have told lies. But the extent to which he has embedded casual dishonesty is unique. As a nation, Britain did not prioritise truth when voting. Yet honesty is more important in a prime minister than policies on taxation, on defence, or any other area — because if he is a liar then what he says is worthless.
A populist is uniquely vulnerable to the public mood and last Wednesday night a poll put Labour 10 points ahead of the Tories.
Lacking a deep reservoir of support within his party, Johnson is likely either to limp along as an increasingly absurd figure, or to be suddenly overthrown by the MPs whose ruthless calculation elevated him. Having sown the wind, he is now reaping the whirlwind.
As damaging as this time in British politics has been, the UK would be in a more dangerous place if Johnson’s dishonesty was seen to work and thus became a template for ambitious politicians. If this nadir convinces voters to prioritise rectitude, Johnson’s malodorous behaviour may have unintentionally done some good.