News from Nowhere: Liar, Liar
Boris Johnson's talent for dissimulation now vies for the honors in eternal ignominy with some of history’s most notorious lies. The dog ate my homework. Weapons of mass destruction. No whitewash in the White House. I did not have relations with that woman. I didn’t inhale. Peace for our time. Fake news. Witch-hunt.
He’s always been a gift to satirists, a gift that just keeps giving. Just when you think his antics couldn’t get any crazier, the yellow peril turns them up a notch. This time, he's dialled his capacity for bare-faced dishonesty up to a hundred and eleventy-twelve per cent.
Because, yes, Big Bad Boris is back.
Earlier this month, the parliamentary privileges committee investigating allegations that Boris Johnson had lied to the House of Commons about his involvement in unlawful social gatherings during periods of Covid-19 lockdown, issued their interim report.
That report supposed that the evidence they had seen would “strongly suggest” that the fact that pandemic rules had been breached should have been “obvious” to Mr. Johnson.
In December 2021, while still Prime Minister, Johnson had assured parliament that no rules had been broken in Downing Street. The following April, he received a police fine for his involvement in such breaches.
Lying to the House of Commons is considered one of the very worst sins a British MP can commit. It’s possibly even more heinous than the rather more common offences of fraud, embezzlement, and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Penalties can range from requiring the member to formally apologise for their conduct, through to a suspension from parliament, which, if exceeding ten days, can prompt a recall petition – which in turn (if signed by one in ten of an MP’s constituents) can trigger a by-election.
Last May, a top civil servant’s investigation into what had become known as the ‘Partygate’ scandal concluded that these breaches had resulted from “failures in leadership” at the highest levels of government.
That report was accompanied by embarrassing photographs of Mr. Johnson partying during lockdowns, and detailed accounts of raucous and drunken behavior in Downing Street. Much public sympathy was expressed across the nation for the cleaning staff who’d had to clear up the mess. Red wine stains on the wallpaper would have been the very least of it.
It looked like Boris Johnson’s administration was aiming to recreate some degree of the Dionysian excess known in Rome in the last days of Nero, or in Washington during the presidencies of Clinton and Trump.
This latest inquiry has published further evidence, including a series of WhatsApp messages between senior officials. One bluntly warns against the likelihood of “leaks of the PM having a piss-up” and another – from Johnson’s own director of communications – observes how the emerging facts had blown “another great gaping hole” in his boss’s version of events.
Mr. Johnson has consistently denied having knowingly lied to parliament. He also of course once consistently denied having partied his way through the pandemic.
Last week, Mr. Johnson appeared before the parliamentary privileges committee to respond to the allegations he’s facing. This kind of action against a former premier is unprecedented in British political history.
Two weeks ago, Boris Johnson’s local constituency party reselected him as their electoral candidate for parliament. It will certainly be interesting to see how soon that election in the seat of Uxbridge will next be contested. If his critics have their way, it may be a lot sooner than he might like.
Last week, the BBC’s political editor supposed that there are already “plenty of Conservative MPs” who hope that Boris Johnson’s political career is over. Indeed, the majority of parliamentarians who sit on the investigating committee are members of his own party.
That is at least a sign that some shreds of integrity and dignity have survived his scandalous leadership of that party. It may be that his departure from frontline politics would represent the only chance the Tories have of ever managing to restore their reputations and their electoral prospects.
Yet, quite extraordinarily, there are others who continue to believe that his tainted charisma and his haphazard energy still offer their best hope of victory at the next national poll. Thus, on the morning of his grilling last Wednesday, the Daily Mail crowed that “bullish Boris” was “up for the fight”.
Nevertheless, a recent survey of ordinary Conservative Party members showed that, although a majority disapproved of the processes of this current inquiry, only about a fifth would want the blond bombshell back in Downing Street.
On Wednesday morning, the Daily Star’s front page had featured a picture of the former Prime Minister alongside the headline, “I’m not a liar… I’m just a moron.” This observation was not entirely inapposite.
Submitting documentation ahead of his committee hearing last week, Mr. Johnson stressed that, although he now at last – for the very first time – admitted to having misled parliament, he hadn’t intended to do so.
He then blamed his officials and advisors for giving him the wrong information and advice, and dismissed as untrue those who’d said they’d given him the right information and advice at the time. His version of events was last week denied by senior members of his old team.
It wasn’t, after all, his fault that he’d found himself in the middle of several unlawful parties. He simply hadn’t noticed all the cakes, cheese boards, and bottles of wine. He’d doubtless put the vomiting of his underlings down to a new strain of Covid. Even the karaoke had passed him by.
This is a former premier whose brazen disregard for the truth has hit an all-time low. His talent for dissimulation now vies for the honors in eternal ignominy with some of history’s most notorious lies. The dog ate my homework. Weapons of mass destruction. No whitewash in the White House. I did not have relations with that woman. I didn’t inhale. Peace for our time. Fake news. Witch-hunt.
This is a liar whose proverbial trousers aren’t just on fire. By now, they’re properly burnt to a crisp.
And so, last week, this blustering buffoon briefly exchanged his typically brash bombast for the wheedling duplicity of the weasel words of a politician seasoned by decades of self-serving cynicism.
It truly seems he has no shame: he’s willing to say or do virtually anything, however fantastically unbelievable, in his attempts to avoid taking responsibility for his actions or accepting his due share of the blame.
The parliamentary committee responded to his 52 pages of paperwork that his submission was late, contained a number of errors, and included no new evidence of substantive relevance.
Sitting down to face the committee's questions on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson was first made to watch a selection of video clips of the misleading statements he had made in the House of Commons in relation to his breaches of his own pandemic rules. He was then required to swear an oath to tell the truth.
The unusual move of making a former premier submit to a legally binding promise to tell the truth emphasized the seriousness of the proceedings, and suggested the likelihood that he might otherwise choose not to do so.
He then asserted with “hand on heart” that he had not lied to parliament and that he had acted “in good faith”. Yes, seriously. One could almost hear the souls of representatives of that rare breed of statespeople renowned for their honesty – from Marcus Aurelius to Abraham Lincoln – groaning through the ages from their graves.
Johnson’s approach to the committee was belligerent and dismissive. He declared that his interrogation was “theoretically irrelevant” – whatever that might mean. The arguments against him were “complete nonsense”. Suggestions that he might be held in contempt of parliament were “utterly insane”.
That was the clear extent of his contempt for the process and for his peers. This was the epitome of Boorish Johnson.
He spoke with all the repetitive and incoherent arrogance of Donald Trump sneering at his accusers, a condemned serial killer spitting at the electric chair.
He went on to attempt to cast the blame onto people who’d been his closest colleagues at the time. He repeatedly tried to draw the current Prime Minister into it.
(As he was saying this, parliament was voting by an overwhelming majority in favor of that successor’s solution to Brexit’s crucial Northern Ireland trade problem, a problem Mr. Johnson had himself caused, and a solution which he had opposed. Thus, his old allies had deserted him like rats leaving a sinking shyster… or a stinking pile of the substance that he’s full of.)
He seemed blissfully oblivious to the possibility that when he was heading the British government, he might have held certain unique responsibilities for its moral leadership.
His response to efforts made by his first questioner – a veteran Tory MP – to acknowledge the contradictions between his own assertions and actual facts set the tone for the rest of the encounter. He maintained a state of intractable denial. They might as well have interrogated a brick wall.
Guidance was “being complied with”. The conduct of social gatherings was “not incompatible with the guidance”. Parties were “necessary for work purposes”. Breaches were “unobvious” and briefings on the subject were only “slightly embellished”.
Tell a lie often enough and you begin to believe it. It’s not clear that anyone else does though.
As one BBC correspondent noted, eyebrows were raised when the former premier continued to insist that these unlawful gatherings had been “essential”.
“If anyone thinks I was partying during lockdown, they are totally wrong,” he said. Mr. Johnson’s new definition of the word ‘wrong’ would appear to include ‘seen the photos and believe the evidence of their own eyes’. Or indeed ‘heard his eventual apologies and admissions that he did’.
He again stressed that the reason why he hadn’t immediately told the truth and set the record straight (until results of the police investigation had forced him to do so) was that he hadn’t wanted to interfere with the process of that investigation.
Was this because the spectacle of a serving Prime Minister telling the truth could really have impeded the police in their inquiries? Well, it would surely have caught them off guard.
The morning after the hearing, the newspapers agreed on one thing: the encounter hadn’t been friendly. The Telegraph called Johnson “defiant”. The Times described the exchanges as “fractious”. The Metro called them “bad-tempered” and said the former premier had been “furious”.
The committee is expected to publish its verdict on Boris Johnson’s conduct at some point over the next few months. Its recommendations will hold in the balance not only Mr. Johnson’s own fate but also the future of the British Conservative Party and the reputation for the probity of parliamentary democracy in the UK.
Meanwhile, last Wednesday, even as all this drama was unfolding at Westminster, Rishi Sunak’s people chose quietly to fulfill his pledge to publish his tax returns. At a time of great public hardship, when many people are struggling to afford to feed their families and heat their homes, these disclosures demonstrated how extraordinarily wealthy he is.
They had doubtless hoped that, amidst all this furor, the story might have slipped unnoticed beneath the radar of the British media. It had certainly been, as they say, a good day to bury bad news.
Yet this kind of political opportunism may not in this context – and in the long run – offer the very best optics itself. Indeed, it may eventually prove just as damaging and as damning as Boris Johnson’s own bids to spin, to obscure, and to obliterate the truth.
Our once trusted and respected model of parliamentary democracy surely deserves something much better than all this.