Boris Johnson was a liar and had to go. It appears they are allowed to say that even in the Palace of Westminster, in certain circumstances, where dignity has traditionally banned such offensive words. Johnson might have thought he could roar and primp and bluster a few more months into the safety zone of another general election, as he half-implied at his last, raucous question time in the Commons on Wednesday. His favoured weapon, his tongue, might enable him to fight another day. But he had told a lie too many. He was doomed.
I still feel historians will find the swift fall of Johnson puzzling. Politics has long been a conspiracy of mendacities. Johnson seized power through telling lies about the benefits of freeing Britain’s economy from the EU’s single market. Since Brexit the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated a 4% drop in UK growth, which the FT calculates as £40bn in lost tax revenue every year owing to Johnson’s hard deal. Just over half the electorate now think leaving the EU was a mistake. History might imagine this played some part in Johnson’s departure. But no – he is going because of lying about parties and what he knew of the misbehaviour of a whip.
The truth is that the political club can handle grand lies. Tony Blair lied about the threat from Saddam Hussein and took the nation to a needless war. He did not need to resign. Eden survived his fabricated narrative of Suez, whereas Macmillan was devastated by Profumo’s personal lie. As for “security”, all prime ministers think it entitles them to lie through their teeth – “being economical with the truth”, according to a phrase popularised by Thatcher’s cabinet secretary.
The customary excuse is that politicians are allowed to make up stories about the future, and indeed the past, otherwise they would never get elected. In his book Political Hypocrisy, the Cambridge professor David Runciman pleads that a degree of falsity is needed to underpin the hopes, the optimism and even the faith that people have in democratic leaders. Leadership is about plausible illusion. Churchill called it “terminological inexactitude”. Johnson thought Brexit might make him Tory boss and duly dubbed it taking back control even when he must have known, as every trader now knows, that it would do the reverse.
To Runciman, exploiting hypocrisy is the essence of power, the capacity to promise the earth even when promiser and audience both know it is rubbish. Lies are intended to convey confidence and ambition, as when parents lie to their children to secure their love. Johnson was adept at it. He promised to “level up” the country. He told everyone Britain was the greatest country on earth and “world-beating”. He sent aircraft carriers to the South China Sea and danced attendance on Ukraine. He laughed and joked and lied. It was magnetic. He remains, according to YouGov, the most popular Tory leader for a generation (with 30% liking him).
This might be the message Johnson passed to his acolyte Liz Truss, now predicted by some to be prime minister in a month’s time. Rishi Sunak believes fiscal caution, honesty and responsibility are the truthful way to appeal to the Tory members. Truss disagrees. She promises what a chorus of economic commentators declare to be fiscal nonsense. She assured the BBC that her tax cuts would reduce inflation. Asked to justify this statement, she could only cite Patrick Minford, economic architect of the Brexit disaster. I have combed the columns of the financial press and found not one supporter of her thesis.
Experts from the OECD to the Resolution Foundation point out that the UK has among the lowest tax burdens in Europe. Many incoming regimes promise tax cuts and higher spending on public services, with a temporary rise in borrowing. The novelty in post-Covid Britain is that the resulting indebtedness would rise beyond all peacetime precedent. Since every public service is now screaming for cash, for Truss to preach tax cuts is not just to preach severe austerity. It is to preach what she must know the Treasury and cabinet will not actually do. But if such politicking worked for the Johnson, why not try it again?
The art of political mendacity is to concentrate on what cannot immediately be tested – to lie about the future. The lies that led to Johnson’s downfall might have been relatively small but they were about the present and instantly falsifiable. They were Houdini lies, securing escape from one entrapment even if only leading to another. They eventually erode trust all round.
I believe that veracity in public life is actually on a rising curve. Political statements can be verified by the media with ever greater ease. The shroud of secrecy that has long hung over government – petty corruption, lack of audit, planning bribery – is proving vulnerable to ever more intensive digital penetration and monitoring. Craven falsities and pledges are easier to disentangle and test.
If politicians were unable to promise the earth – or claim to have created it – democracy would be dull indeed. Yet there must be limits. When Rishi Sunak says two plus two equals four and Liz Truss says five, I have no option. I have to go for Sunak.