It’s starting to look a lot like a cover-up. Are you too cynical? Perhaps we should congratulate Boris Johnson on a wonderful stroke of luck, a convenient turn of events just in time. Having seen nothing to investigate in the party affair until this week, the Metropolitan Police swooped in at the very moment Sue Gray was ready to print her long-awaited report, one that threatened to end the office of Prime Minister. of Johnson, and stayed his hand.
The Met told Gray that he can say whatever he wants about Downing Street parties, as long as he doesn’t say anything about Downing Street parties. OR how did you put it: “For the facts being investigated by the Met, we ask that a minimum reference be made in the Cabinet Office report.” He stresses that he “didn’t ask for any limitations on other events in the report,” which is a bit like saying, “On all things no one cares about, go ahead: knock yourself out.” In fact, with this move, the Met has all but ensured that what remains of Gray’s report, if it is ever published, will be rejected by Johnson and his defenders: if Gray was allowed to publish it, they will say, it can’t be published. so serious.
That is not where the bar should be set. The issue is not just whether Johnson was guilty of criminal breaches of Covid regulations, but whether he broke the lockdown he imposed on everyone else and misled parliament. Those trials cannot be outsourced to a police force, especially one led by a commissioner who has good reason to feel that he only remains in his post thanks to the mercy of the prime minister. Those are decisions for politicians and voters to make, with access to all the facts.
That perspective is fading. Gray now faces a choice: publish a gutted version of his report, which Downing Street will falsely misrepresent as having acquitted the prime minister, or delay it until the police have completed their job. It is all too plausible to imagine a statement from the Met, weeks or months from now, announcing that, having conducted its investigation, it has concluded that no further action is necessary. The Johnson team will also interpret it as an exoneration. And whatever facts Gray uncovered will remain in the drafts folder on his laptop.
What would be the effect of that? I don’t mean in narrow political terms, though it would clearly boost Johnson’s prospects of keeping his job. I am referring to the consequences for our public and collective life. What does it do to a country to be run by a documented liar?
That is a question we can ask with or without the Gray report. We can put the whole partygate thing aside and the question still stands. Even Johnson’s admirers admit to his proven record of mendacity. They know he was fired twice for lying, once by the Times, once by Michael Howard, then the leader of his party. They remember the fictitious £350 million on the side of the bus. They have seen more evidence of his dishonesty this week, when documents emerged saying Johnson personally intervened to help Pen Farthing get its animals out of Kabul, rather than desperate Afghans whose help for Britain had put a Taliban target on their backs. , despite the Prime Minister’s statement. insistence that he had done no such thing. The pattern is so clear that it cannot be denied. What is that doing to us?
We can see the effect in two countries that are or were run by experienced liars. Vladimir Putin is what the moral philosopher Quassim Cassam calls “a strategic liar”: his lies are part of an elaborate strategy, aimed less at convincing the Russian public than at confusing it, making it dependent on the strongman in the Kremlin who can present himself as the only source of clarity in a fog of doubt. Donald Trump’s lies, meanwhile, fall into the category of “pathological”, based on a sociopathic personality. The effect on the US is quite obvious: Trump, in office and out, has entrenched a situation where a large part of the US population inhabits a kingdom without a care for truth, evidence and science. The strongest predictor whether or not an American has taken the Covid vaccine is whether or not they voted for Donald Trump.
Johnson is his own case. The £350m was a strategic lie, advanced to great effect, but many of his lies are casual and opportunistic, the kind of lie someone offers to get out of a jam, “the kind of lie”, says Cassam, “that people having affairs have to tell.” It’s a habit Johnson can’t break. He could, for example, have defended his role in the Kabul pet airlift. Instead, he denied it. It was his first reflex.
Even casual lies have their effect. The first could be a change in democratic norms, which change more than you think. It was once taboo for a chancellor to reveal anything about his budget until he had delivered it: in 1947, Hugh Dalton had to resign for violating that unwritten rule. It is now routine for foreign ministers to give newspapers multiple advances on their budgets. The old norm is gone. We may be witnessing another much more significant change at the moment, which overturns the convention that a minister who has been shown to have misled parliament must resign. If Johnson stays, that rule will become as archaic as the one that brought Dalton down.
Will the Johnson effect spread beyond Westminster, so that even among ordinary people the taboo against lying is eroded? It’s tempting to laugh at that, to insist that few Britons base their everyday behavior on the conduct of politicians. Furthermore, the insistence on truth is a norm that society cannot afford to ignore. As Cassam points out: “Human beings are social beings who need to be able to trust each other. That requires trust, and trust requires telling the truth.”
But there is a third zone, between parliament and everyday life: namely, our public institutions. It is naive to think that they are not affected or contaminated by the actions of the man above. If Johnson’s lies go unpunished, that will surely upset the norms that currently govern, say, top public officials. Which causes much more acute concern. If the public decides they can no longer trust the authorities, when the chief medical officer stands up to warn of a new public health threat, there’s no guarantee anyone will listen.
In the US, they are halfway there. Death threats against Dr. Anthony Fauci are so frequent and serious that he now has 24 hour armed security. As trust has waned, it has been replaced by “pure anger and hate, conspiracy theories to explain the world, the belief that facts and evidence don’t matter,” says Peter Pomerantsev, an enthusiastic student of the lies of politicians and author of This Is Not Propaganda. That’s what can happen when a liar rules the country. In November 2020, the Americans got rid of theirs. Ours is holding on, and now, it seems, his friends at the Met have helped him live to fight another day.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism