Thursday, April 11

Boris Johnson wants you to forget Partygate. Don’t let him get away with it | Stephen Reicher

From the very start, it was clear that Partygate should have been a resigning matter for the prime minister. It was obvious that the gatherings, which took place at No 10 at a time when families were denied the right to see their loved ones on their deathbeds, were deeply insensitive. They ignited a sense of “us” and “them” that had been smoldering since Dominic Cummings’ infamous outing to Barnard Castle. Still worse, the sight of Downing Street staff joking about their merrymaking suggested that “they” held “us” in contempt – a position that sounded the death knell for the public’s trust in government.

Four months after the revelations of Downing Street’s parties first broke, things have moved on. The police have investigated the Downing Street parties, concluded the rules were broken, and have started issuing ends – 20 so far, with more expected soon. Even Dominic Raab, the justice minister, accepts that the parties happened and that the prime minister was wrong to tell parliament they didn’t. But the world is a very different place. As far as the headlines are concerned, Covid is yesterday’s crisis; Ukraine is today’s. Yesterday’s lying buffoon has today found his Churchillian moment. At a time when Johnson appears to be standing up to Putin’s tyranny, it might seem that there is far less reason to remove him from office.

In fact, there is even more reason to do so. The fundamental issue is Johnson’s relationship to the truth. By February, a clear majority of people thought the prime minister was dislikeable (55%), weak (61%), incompetent (68%) and indecisive (69%). The public were at their most scathing about Johnson when asked whether they trusted him. Already in December, 69% of people considered Johnson to be untrustworthy (versus 15% who thought him trustworthy). Two months later, the figures had managed to slide still further: 75% didn’t trust him versus a mere 11% who did. In effect, the scandal removed the ability of the government to do its job. In the midst of the greatest national crisis of our generation, it is hardly desirable to have a leadership that is only listened to by one in nine people.

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But now the issue is not so much that we believe Johnson is lying when he says he did nothing wrong. Right from the start a slew of cocks showed that the great majority of people didn’t believe his denials. Indeed, in February, more than 80% of people thought he broke the rules. Possibly, as Johnson’s story constantly shifted from “there were no parties” to “I did n’t attend any parties” to “I did n’t realize they were parties” to “I had a right to attend”, his credibility de he was eroded further.

What has become clear is not just that Boris Johnson lied, but that he isn’t bothered about lying or about being seen to lie. This matters, not just because it harms trust in this government, and therefore its ability to effectively govern. It’s also harmful because it makes the formation of consensus about what is “true” almost impossible. In Hannah Arendt’s seminal text The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the dying of democracy is marked by a progressive contempt for facts and for those who study them, and a growing belief that truth derives from the power of those who fabricate it. If there is no independent validation of reality, what is permissible – and what counts as “true” – comes down to who is most shameless and shouts the loudest.

Arendt also recognized that those who go in this direction must surround themselves with acolytes whose only talent lies in fawning before power, whatever the truth. It is almost as if she had been watching the apologists for today’s Conservative party defending Johnson’s untruths on television when she wrote: “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

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It is important not to push this argument too far. Johnson’s patent disinterest in the truth does not yet mean we are in a totalitarian state. For that to happen, it is not enough for our leaders to lose respect for the truth. We, the public, must lose this respect as well. We have not yet reached the final stage of Elena Gorokhova’s nightmare where, as the Russian writer put it, our rulers keep lying so “we keep pretending to believe them”. For Arendt, the ideal subject of totalitarian rule was not an ideological fanatic, but rather someone for whom “the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist”.

In other words, the ball is now in our court. It may be that our prime minister has given up on the truth. It may be that his party has given up caring about his giving up on the truth and no longer has the will to remove him. Some people may now argue things such as “despite Partygate, Johnson got the big calls right” or “we can’t remove him in the midst of a war” – so called “greater good” arguments, which have always served as cover for the most toxic abuses. But if we allow ourselves to be seduced by these arguments then we too are giving up, and accepting that the distinction between true and false is only a secondary matter.

That is why Partygate still remains a resigning matter, and why the public must call for Johnson’s resignation more loudly than ever.

  • Stephen Reicher is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioral science. He is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an authority on crowd psychology

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