News from Nowhere: Lies, Damned Lies and Politics
Speaking of Boris Johnson: This was a man who, like Donald Trump, believed he has been grievously wronged. This is a man who, like Mr. Trump, wants to come back.
Ten days ago, the UK's new head of state, King Charles III, gave his debut address to the nation. It was a speech, most agreed, underpinned by a sense of honor, integrity, and sincerity. It represented a stark contrast to the approach and the tone of the man who had just a few days earlier been head of the country’s government.
Earlier this month, one of the UK’s top lawyers formally issued a piece of legal advice that recommended caution in the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into whether the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had lied to parliament in his claims that he knew nothing about, nor had ever attended, any parties in Downing Street, which had unlawfully breached his own administration’s Covid-19 lockdown rules in place at the time.
The British government had hired this lawyer, at the taxpayers’ expense, in defense of a disgraced premier whose conduct is under formal investigation by the UK parliament. This action itself has confused several MPs. The advice cost £130,000. The lawyer’s name was, aptly enough, Lord Pannick.
For weeks before, the Tory tabloid press had been calling for the inquiry to be ditched. In July, the Daily Mail had quoted a pair of the former Prime Minister’s supporters describing the proceedings as a ‘vendetta’ and a ‘witch-hunt’. In early August, the Mail had headlined demands by die-hard Johnson disciple and Cabinet crony Nadine Dorries that the Tory members of the inquiry panel should step down from what she called a ‘Machiavellian process’, a ‘kangaroo court’ and, again, a ‘witch-hunt’. The paper repeated that language in its own editorial commentary, denouncing the process as a ‘tawdry witch-hunt’. A few days later, the paper announced that constituents of the Conservative MPs on that panel wanted them to quit what it once more characterized as a ‘witch-hunt’.
The repetition of this emotive term seems highly significant. It recalls, of course, the protestations of another former world leader – another mendacious and promiscuous narcissist renowned for his eccentric manners of speaking and of styling his hair – the unforgettable, unflushable figure of Donald Trump, a person so unutterably awful he gives our entire species a bad name.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly accused his accusers of staging a witch-hunt against him – a ‘rigged witch-hunt’ and indeed ‘the greatest witch-hunt in American history’.
He used the same term to describe the American intelligence investigation into his apparently compromised and complicit relationships with foreign powers. He used it to denounce both of his impeachments and this summer’s Congress hearings into his attempts to incite armed insurrection against his own country’s democratic processes. He has most recently used it to condemn the FBI investigation into his apparently unlawful retention, since leaving office, of top-secret papers at his private residence.
Like Boris Johnson, Trump has also employed every legal (and borderline-legal) means possible to evade scrutiny and justice. His latest trick has been to force the appointment of an independent lawyer to determine whether the Feds can use the seized documents in their investigation, or whether they are in fact protected by executive privilege.
This tactic is designed not only to slow the pace of the inquiry but also, more importantly, to cast doubt upon its legitimacy. It is, after all, like every attempt to hold the martyred Mr. Trump and his loyal associates to account, nothing more than a politically motivated witch-hunt, a farrago of justice, a media circus, and a farce. He is, after all, the most unfairly persecuted person in the entire history of the world. They might as well crucify him.
Trump is of course the world’s undisputed master at firing unfounded allegations at his enemies. The great purveyor of fake news has repeatedly condemned the mainstream media for peddling the stuff. The close friend of billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein promoted conspiracy theories that associated senior Democrats with sex-trafficking rings. When, earlier this month, President Biden declared that Trump’s ideologies represented a threat to American democracy, his predecessor – never one to ignore an opportunity for hyperbole – retorted that Sleepy Joe was an ’enemy of the state’ and that the federal raid on his property in Florida was ‘one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history’. Yes, it clearly ranked alongside Vietnam, Nagasaki, slavery, segregation, and the invasion of Iraq. It made Watergate look like a storm in a teacup.
Boris Johnson has of course employed similar rhetorical tactics. Perhaps most outrageously, while at long last admitting to parliament that he may indeed have attended a number of unlawful social gatherings of which he had previously denied all knowledge, but insisting that he had most assuredly never lied about any of those things, he had – against the explicit advice of his political aides – attempted to deflect attention from his own transgressions by claiming falsely that the leader of the Opposition had, in a previous role, been responsible for a decision not to prosecute a notorious sex-offender. He later refused to retract or apologize for that barefaced slur.
British MPs are protected from defamation laws by parliamentary privilege. In other words, they cannot be sued for slander for anything they say while addressing their peers in the chamber of the House of Commons. But that doesn’t mean they can say anything they like. They are not allowed to knowingly mislead parliament and are therefore expected, if they do so misspeak, to set the record straight, formally and on the first possible occasion.
Lord Pannick’s costly legal advice argued that the ongoing parliamentary investigation would have to establish that Mr. Johnson had ‘intended to mislead’ the House of Commons – in other words, that ‘he knew that what he told the House was incorrect’. The dear barrister argued that, if this principle did not underpin the inquiry, ‘the threat of contempt proceedings for unintentional mistakes would have a seriously chilling effect’. If Boris Johnson were to be found guilty of lying to parliament, no MP would ever dare say anything in the House of Commons again. Yeah, sure.
There is no doubt that Boris Johnson misled parliament. He declared that these parties had not taken place, that he had no knowledge of them, that he hadn’t attended them, that they were not unlawful, that he hadn’t known they were unlawful, that he had attended them, that they were unlawful, and that, with the gift of hindsight, he should have probably known they were unlawful.
Yet, proving what he had intended and what he had known – proving what was whirring around his mind at any given time – would of course be rather more difficult to achieve.
Proving intention is practically impossible in the case of even the most scrupulously honest ordinary citizens. Imagine how much more difficult it would be in relation to the most disingenuous politician to have come to power since, two thousand and sixty-six years ago, Brutus told Caesar he loved his new look for the Roman spring.
Advocates of the inquiry have argued that Johnson’s repeating of his lies on multiple occasions, his failure to set the record straight until publicly faced with a police fine, and the fact that he obviously knew that he had attended parties that clearly broke laws that he had himself established and announced, all go to demonstrate that his attempts to mislead parliament could hardly be considered to constitute an accidental aberration. They have supposed that the suspension of the former premier on these grounds would not be likely on future occasions to petrify any decent politician into silence.
This is not the first time that Johnson has tried to stymie the processes of a parliamentary investigation into the conduct of a senior Tory. When, last autumn, an old friend of his was suspended from the House for repeatedly using his position as an MP to promote the interests of businesses by whom he was paid, Johnson attempted to mobilize colleagues to change the rules and thereby overturn the ruling.
He eventually failed to do so, but he caused massive reputational damage to his party in his abortive attempt to subvert parliament’s protocols for policing its members.
In May, he changed the ministerial code of conduct, to say that government members shown to have breached it do not necessarily have to resign. This was seen by many as a pre-emptive move to prevent his own sacking. Again, his gambit failed and rebounded badly on the reputation of his office.
His successor, Liz Truss, has already been warned by the chair of parliament’s Committee on Standards and Privileges to resist pressure from Johnson’s supporters to appoint to the panel MPs known to be sympathetic to her predecessor’s plight.
Corruption is bad enough. But these brazenly corrupt attempts to wriggle free from allegations of corruption are even more dangerous. They damage the very foundations of our political systems. When the likes of Trump and Johnson lie and cheat to escape the repercussions of their lying and cheating, they further undermine public trust in the processes and structures which both put them into power and then removed them from it. For the sake of the future of democracy itself, they – and others – must surely not be allowed to get away with these acts of shameless hypocrisy.
A fortnight ago, on his last morning in office, Boris Johnson stood in front of his Downing Street residence to give his farewell speech. He listed what he considered the greatest hits of his premiership, though few of these had been successfully completed. There was no hint of contrition or regret.
In his rhetoric of self-aggrandizement, he went on to liken himself to Cincinnatus, the ancient Roman general who heroically returned from retirement to save the state from catastrophe.
This was a man who, like Donald Trump, believed he has been grievously wronged. This is a man who, like Mr. Trump, wants to come back.
But, despite his last words to parliament during his premiership – ‘hasta la vista, baby’ – he’s no Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’d be about as welcome back as Voldemort at Hogwarts or a new strain of Covid in an old folks’ home.
When his successor Liz Truss appointed her new Cabinet earlier this month, she prompted disquiet in her own party by filling the upper echelons of government with her closest loyalists and by purging her main rival’s supporters from those exalted ranks. She also surprised many colleagues with her readiness to praise her immediate predecessor’s legacy.
Her apparent desire to surround herself with yes-men and yes-women, like-minded backers of her own ideological positions, and her plans to perpetuate many of Mr. Johnson’s policies might suggest to some that, in spirit at least, the great pretender hasn’t left office at all.
It’s as if the Terminator had loftily announced that he’d be back, before scampering around to hide behind the fridge. (Or, in Boris Johnson’s case – when in December 2019 attempting to escape an unwanted TV interview – actually inside it.)