There are few people better qualified to hold Prime Minister Boris Johnson to account, or explain the curious phenomenon of his rise to power than Peter Oborne.
And Oborne does so with gusto in his latest book – The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Barbarism.
The opening paragraph gives the flavour of what is to come:
“You’re looking to hire a new member of staff. A candidate presents himself. He is charming, intelligent, amusing, well connected, with glowing references. But a check throws up uncomfortable facts. He was sacked from his first job after university for lying. He was sacked again, after a similar episode later on in his career. Close inspection reveals that he has a history of deception, misrepresentation, false statements and serial fabrications. You’d probably be more likely to call the police than hire this individual,” says Oborne.
Yet on December 12 2019, the British people chose Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
The lies keep coming… ‘The Irish Border’
Oborne has an endless selection of Johnson lies and misrepresentations to choose from but one stands out among the others, more egregious and troubling in its political implications – Johnson on Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister repeatedly stated on visits to Northern Ireland, on television and in the House of Commons, that there would be no custom checks or controls on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland or from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
In fact, such controls became inevitable after Johnson signed his revised deal with Europe in October 2019, and as Oborne notes, he must have known this because he personally signed off the deal.
The very next day, on October 22, Johnson insisted in Parliament there would be no border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“This bare-faced lie in all its moral squalor remains on the Commons order paper,” says Oborne who noted that the false claim was then made repeatedly during the following General election campaign.
Apart from limiting trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, there are increasing fears that the new border controls could undermine the Good Friday agreement. It could also increase the danger of a resumption of violence on the island of Ireland as the resentment of Unionists grows at what some see as a betrayal.
They go back a long way…
Oborne is perfectly placed to judge the Johnson record for many reasons. He has been a political journalist for more than 40 years and has earned a high degree of moral authority for resigning as the highly paid chief political commentator for The Daily Telegraph on a matter of principle.
Oborne left because he believed that the Telegraph’s coverage, or more precisely lack of coverage, of the affairs of HSBC, one of the paper’s prominent advertisers, amounted to a “fraud on its readers”.
His forty years experience of political reporting enables him to compare and contrast Johnson’s predecessors in Number 10.
Tony Blair gave an early flavour of what was to come, in a far more extreme form, with Boris Johnson. Blair believed, as many on the Left do, Oborne argues, that they are exempt from the constraints of truth-telling in pursuit of a greater good. This belief led directly to “calamity” when New Labour peddled lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to make the case for war against Iraq in 2003.
As for Blair’s immediate successors Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May they were all too capable of being devious. But they were not habitual liars and all “were driven by a sense of public duty and integrity”.
According to Oborne, standards of truth telling collapsed at the precise moment Boris Johnson and his associates entered 10 Downing Street in the early afternoon of 24 July 2019.
Spectator at the feast…
The central reason why Oborne is particularly suitable for unravelling the Johnson mystery is that he worked happily with the Prime Minister, who hired him as a political correspondent at The Spectator when he was the editor. He was therefore well placed to see, and try to explain, the metamorphosis from talented weekly magazine editor to serial liar.
“He (Johnson) was a joy to work with, a fine editor and a loyal colleague with the quickest mind I have ever encountered. Nothing needed explaining twice,” says Oborne who finds it difficult to reconcile such two different people, or different versions of the same person.
The ‘good Boris’ stood up for British institutions, which the ‘bad Boris’ remorselessly attacks, and once believed in the honest politics he now subverts.
Boris the Spectator editor accused Tony Blair of treating Parliament and the public with contempt.
“He might have been looking ahead to his own premiership. Johnson wanted Blair to be impeached,” Oborne added.
So how did the transformation from Johnson of The Spectator to today’s Prime Minister occur? Oborne says he can only offer “informed speculation”.
Boris’s journey to untruth; Mayor of London and Leave
The process began when Johnson was elected, and then re-elected Mayor of London in 2008 and 2012 despite the capital being a Labour stronghold.
Johnson had run London as he had run The Spectator, with frequent absences and leaving the detail to capable deputies.
His electoral success in London stimulated his ambition to new heights and many Tories began to see him as someone who could win seats.
“Like Donald Trump after the 2016 presidential election, Johnson’s electoral Midas touch encouraged his own party thereafter to give him a pass to lie and cheat,” Oborne observes.
On balance, Johnson probably agreed with Remain rather than Leave but his career was the only thing that mattered.
“Johnson made a bargain. The Vote Leave campaign would propel him to Downing Street, and he would be their figurehead,” says Oborne.
Johnson the actor needed a scriptwriter and he found that person in Dominic Cummings.
Together, the two mounted a “reverse takeover” of the Tory party, Oborne believes. In such an analysis, in both the US and the UK, truth was transferred from public into private hands almost like the privatisation of the water and electricity companies.
“Truth falls into the hands of a new and unaccountable set of owners. It can be bought and sold by shareholders, poisoned and polluted and turned into an instrument of state and private power,” Oborne argues.
In this case, the takeover of the Conservatives has been accomplished by Brexit supporters on the right-wing of the party.
Since the Brexiteers victory in the June 2016 referendum, Johnson has often behaved as if that victory gave him a political legitimacy “to trash British institutions like Parliament, the Supreme Court and the BBC.”
What does Boris believe?
Oborne also makes a serious attempt to get to the heart of the political philosophy underlying the behaviour of both President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson.
For Oborne, it is mesmerising to think that Johnson and Trump, though leaders of the Tory and Republican parties, embody progressive, rather than conservative insights. about human nature.
“They are with Rousseau and the French revolution rather and Montesquieu and the American constitution. They think the end justifies the means,” Oborne argues.
As a result, they wage permanent war on institutions, despise due process and feel entitled to fabricate and twist the truth.
Above all, Trump and Johnson, according to Oborne, reject the Burkeian wisdom that you need to support institutions to protect society from human weaknesses. As Lenin asked in another context: “What Is To Be Done?”
Oborne believes the threat goes far beyond the personalities of Trump and Johnson. The UK is faced by something much more serious, a structural fascination with “the short-term, the transient and destructive” and it’s time to start the fight back.
Cleansing the public record
Oborne believes there are number of actions individuals can take to fight against intolerable levels of deceit.
He has sent his excellent little book to the Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle arguing that in future, any lies or misinformation should be corrected on the public record within seven days.
And just in case Mr Speaker has not managed to read The Assault on Truth, Oborne has helpfully sent him a selection of lies or misleading statements uttered by PM Boris Johnson in the House of Commons.
They obviously include: “There will be no checks between NI and GB.”
The false claims are many and various. They include: “We brought in the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown.” They didn’t.
“The economy, under this Conservative Government has grown by 73 per cent.” It didn’t. Under Conservative led-governments since 2010, the economy grew by 20 per cent. The economy grew by 73 per cent between 1990 and 2017 but that included 13 years of Labour Government.
And so it goes on…
Oborne also wants citizens represented by Conservative MPs to write to them demanding retractions every time they hear a lie or misleading statement from Johnson or his ministers.
He also suggests that those attacked in a government statement from ministerial sources to sue. Serving a writ for defamation on a minister, especially Boris Johnson, in a public place would be a valuable demonstration that ministers should take responsibility for what they or their underlings say and do.
Despite his willingness to lead a fight-back against the falsehoods of Boris Johnson, Peter Oborne is not optimistic about the chances of success.
But he concludes: “It is time to stand and fight for decency, tolerance, truth and the freedom which comes with it. Serious times of suffering, tragedy and hardship now lie ahead.”
‘The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism’ is published by Simon & Schuster.
This review was written for the new book ‘Populism and the Media. Boris, Brexit, Covid and the Donald’, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler and Richard Tait, and due to be published by Abramis Academic on June 23rd and available on Amazon.