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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 12:27pm

It should terrify us that it’s impossible to hold Boris Johnson to account

By Jonn Elledge

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes about how the purpose of propaganda is not simply to propagate lies, but to erode public trust in the truth. In The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker promises to “unleash hell” by overloading journalists with so much material with that they can’t find the corruption scandal hidden in plain sight.

Somewhere between these two strategies, I think, lies that pursued — possibly cynically, perhaps just instinctively — by the man who is overwhelmingly likely to be Britain’s next prime minister. Boris Johnson is all but certain to make it to the last two candidates in the Conservative leadership race, but still has to win the vote of the members. That means his campaign could, theoretically, implode over the weeks to come.

But it is all but impossible to imagine the event that could bring this about. So prevalent are the lies and the embarrassments and the screw-ups that, somehow, nothing seems to stick. That no scandal has yet brought him down makes all those scandals feel smaller, somehow, and reframes fresh revelations as little more than trifles.

So Michael Gove’s campaign was holed below the water line by the revelations last weekend that he had taken cocaine in the past. Yet Johnson’s youthful flirtations with such things have been public knowledge for years — and so he sails on, this knowledge already factored in.

London mayor Sadiq Khan is currently under fire from the Tory party for spending £300,000 on a “Beach Party” in the Royal Docks, open to the public for five weeks this summer. Johnson, his predecessor, wasted tens of millions on an unnecessary bridge, designed by a friend, that will never, ever be built — yet this too is factored in. Johnson wastes public money: everybody knows that. But no one seems to care.

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There are the affairs. The damage done to Britain’s diplomatic reputation while foreign secretary. The error, while in post, which endangered a British citizen held prisoner in Iran. None of it sticks. All is factored in. Boris is Boris, isn’t he? Wot a legend.

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Worse than the scandals, in terms of our political culture, are the lies. On this week’s Talking Politics podcast, Chris Brooke noted that it is hard to imagine what Johnson could say that would bind him to a particular course of action. To put that another way: we can’t trust a bloody word he says.

How will Britain’s political system cope with a leader whose words bear so little relation, not just to his actions, but to the words he will say tomorrow? We don’t have to imagine. Donald Trump is in the White House.

In some ways, this weaponisation of bad behaviour has proved an excellent political strategy. In his presidency, as in his campaign, Trump has been graded on a very flattering curve. Silvio Berlusconi was Italy’s most durable prime minister in decades. And Johnson himself has repeatedly survived things that would have destroyed anyone else in British public life.

But it’s a nightmare for the media and the public — because if politicians are not bound to their promises, then how can we hold can we hold them to account? If lying and philandering and wasting money go unpunished, then what line could we be sure would never be crossed?

There must, theoretically, be a limit to all this. A scandal that could engulf Boris Johnson that is so extreme that even he couldn’t brazen through. A crime perhaps, of a different magnitude to substance abuse, or a mistake that cost British lives. Nobody is unbeatable forever.

But it is hard to imagine what could come out that could stop him attaining office, or place limits on his actions once he holds it. And that, like his admirer in the White House, is simply terrifying.

This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series.