The leaked footage of Allegra Stratton joking about an illegal Christmas Party – which was allegedly held yards from Boris Johnson’s office – while the rest of the nation grieved alone for lost loved ones and obeyed the law, presents the iconic image of modern conservatism: posh people partying on the public’s expense, in defiance of both rules and moral decency, and then being paid six-figure salaries to rehearse lying about it on camera.
Stratton was a good journalist. As a Newsnight producer, she once got me into the Treasury to see Gordon Brown an hour before some vital football match was starting, on the pretence that all we wanted was “a clip”. As I grilled him – relentlessly and at length – he began to signal urgently to his aides to end it. Stratton held them off long enough for us to get a decent story. I jumped into a taxi, exhilarated.
She was a good PR person too. Hired in 2020 to polish the image of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, she reinvented him as a soft-focus catalogue model. There would be no more journalists snaking their way in for any impromptu confrontations. We, the taxpayers, would pay for an American-style image campaign: Sunak would even get his own font and graphic design look.
Naturally, Boris Johnson wanted the same treatment. Hiring Stratton would solve two problems: she would not only give Johnson an image makeover but – and here’s where the story turns dark – actually replace him as the government’s public face. And by hiring a White House-style press spokesperson, Johnson would look presidential.
In the resulting shambles, Stratton has ended not only her own career but quite possibly that of Boris Johnson. Because in that leaked video encapsulates what Johnson’s government has become: an incompetent lie-machine in flagrant breach of the rules and of the law.
What would competence and professionalism have demanded? That the most senior civil servant who was aware of the party on 18 December report it to the cabinet secretary in writing; and that the most senior media adviser (which at this point could plausibly have been Stratton herself) prepare a crisis management plan for when – not if – news of the rule-breach leaked to the media.
But as the jokey spontaneity of the video reveals, nobody had thought to do the basic actions that a corporate senior manager would. It was left to a privately-educated adviser in his twenties to remind privately educated Stratton that she might face questions about the breach. Though Stratton reminds the assembled special advisers that “this is being recorded”, no one even bothers to secure the tape.
The entire episode is an example of what happens when you let amateurs run a government machine designed around the assumptions of truth, professionalism and competence – above all, when many of those amateurs are rich people who have winged it into journalism and PR.
The common assumption among journalists is that politicians routinely lie. Not big lies, of course, but the kind of stonewalling and evasion that Brown, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May were good at, and which Jeremy Corbyn was incapable of doing. But most of the politicians I’ve met would not willingly practise lying to the public on camera, with a room full of witnesses, unless there was some deadly serious national emergency that required doing it for public good.
But Downing Street is not currently run by politicians in the normal sense. It is run by modern Machiavellis. Johnson, Stratton, Michael Gove and numerous underlings all come out of journalism – and not the journalism of the flak jacket or the scoop.
They originated from a faction of journalism where lavish salaries are paid to those who are in the right networks: the Murdoch garden party, the Spectator Christmas bash, the discreet yachting trips where white-gloved flunkies hand you chilled champagne.
In this world, the most fashionable thing to be is reactionary. To say loudly that taxation is pointless; that the readers of a newspaper are “stupid little housewives”; that benefit claimants – as Stratton implied in 2012 to public outrage on Newsnight – choose their misery. And that lying is a legitimate and routine tool of statecraft.
Why else would Johnson have denied that a party took place? Why else would he have tried to get his ministers to haplessly parrot the same line?
Johnson himself has established the pattern. He lied his way through the 2016 Brexit campaign. In 2019, he misled the Queen in order to prorogue parliament. A month after being presented with the Intelligence and Security Committee Report on Russia, which showed widespread and persistent interference in British politics, he stated there was “no evidence that I’ve ever seen of any Russian interference in UK democratic processes”.
So prolific are Johnson’s lies that the viral video of them made by the campaigner Peter Stefanovic has been viewed 41 million times. As Dominic Cummings, his former chief political adviser wrote: “He lies – so blatantly, so naturally, so regularly – that there is no real distinction possible with him, as there is with normal people, between truth and lies.”
Since large parts of the electorate put to one side that Johnson was a liar – perhaps preferring them to the complex and unpalatable truth – this moment might be a good time to confront the consequences of lying as statecraft, and its root causes.
The consequences of “organised lying” were well understood by the generation of journalists who were confronted by both Nazism and Stalinism.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, noted that the elite’s power within the fascist movements of the inter-war period rested on an “artificially induced inability to understand facts as facts, to distinguish between truth and falsehood”. This was instilled in specialist educational settings, and produced what she called the elite’s outstanding negative quality: “it [the elite class] never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality”. If the world doesn’t match the lie, the world (or the historical record) can be changed so that the lie becomes true.
But Arendt understood an even more disturbing fact: that the unorganised masses who followed Europe’s dictators and autocrats to their doom in the 1930s wanted the lies. The masses, she wrote: “do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself.”
In the past decade, across the Western world, we have learned that you don’t need to be a fascist to deploy the elite strategy of lying, nor a footsoldier to become mesmerised by it. Cummings himself, the architect of the Brexit lie, once wrote admiringly of Soviet propaganda techniques, which “overwhelm reason and humans’ capacity for objective analysis by creating a moral picture such that people send little moral signals to each other by their actions”.
The consequence, since Brexit, has been devastating for democracy. A proportion of the British public will put up with anything Johnson does or says so long as he continues to enact their xenophobic and racist prejudices. This is the intention behind the Nationality and Borders Bill; and the recent Sewell Report, which suggested that it was white working class boys, not people from minority ethnic backgrounds, who are being oppressed by the “anti-racism industry”.
This particular “alliance of elite and mob”, to use Arendt’s phrase, is addicted to lying from top to bottom. It has scoured the insides out of the mechanisms of democratic accountability and destroyed people’s trust in government, at the exact moment when energy security, public health and geopolitical stability are all in question.
As I’ve argued before: this is not really conservatism anymore. It’s not the political projection of the managerial class and high finance. It bears no allegiance to the political philosophy of Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott or anyone in between them.
This is a government by a self-selected elite, by and for itself. As Stratton found out, and Cummings before her, it will ruthlessly discard even the most obedient true believers to maintain its power. But the result is that the inner circle tightens and the lies become even bigger.