I am writing this from the tiny canal boat in Little Venice I’ve called home for many years now. Despite the fact that the waves emanating from Westminster have made the waters in London distinctly choppier of late, I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. From time to time, though, the goings-on in the corridors of power just a few miles south-east cause me to sleep uneasily.
Then again, that’s not as much of a problem professionally as it once was: in Germany public interest in the UK has declined markedly since Brexit finally “got done”, so my day job — correspondent for Germany’s premier public service broadcaster ARD — has become distinctly more relaxed. Early starts to get footage of mile-long tailbacks at Dover? No longer necessary, now that my commissioning editors have grown weary even of these stark visuals. They don’t even have schadenfreude value any more.
This might also have something to do with the fact that the Johnson government has successfully managed to distract his own people from Brexit and its consequences. The BBC has more or less stopped reporting on the situation, to such a degree that only last week Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, was actually able to stand up in the House of Commons and state that the lorry-jams in her constituency were not caused by Brexit at all, but instead by (what else?) “Brussels bureaucracy”. Her ire was so earnest, the cheers from the benches so lively, that I got the distinct impression she might actually believe the nonsense she was spreading.
And that is what is truly disturbing about much of what is going on in the UK these days: the speed with which the distinction between truth and lies is becoming blurred in public discourse. Brexit was the seed, and now that it has germinated, a “Brave New World” has sprung forth. Brexit wasn’t only sold with lies, “it actually consisted of lies”, as the tireless chronicler of this national tragedy, Chris Grey, recently put it so well. That is why the sunlit uplands are still shrouded in impenetrable mists while the enormous economic damage inflicted is increasingly plain to see. When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the newly crowned Minister for Brexit Opportunities”, calls on the readers of the Sun to suggest which EU rules they want scrapped, it shows not only his own cluelessness but how much of an oxymoron his ministry actually is. All this a mere six years after the referendum.
This foundation of lies is the reason Brexiteers needed a man so devoid of moral integrity to get their house built. As such, Boris Johnson is the contractor, not the architect. And the constant noise he generates with daily new distractions is nothing more than garish wallpaper being slapped over ever more gaping cracks in British political culture.
Not that wallpaper will suffice to patch up a house of lies of these dimensions. For that, ever more egregious untruths and a never-ending stream of opportunistic accomplices are needed. Johnson has long understood how this system works, by the way: as he once wrote in an essay back in his student days, a successful politician needs a “disciplined and deluded collection of stooges… The tragedy of the stooge is that he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth. The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.”
As such, a willingness to shut out the truth about Brexit remains one key condition for a seat at Johnson’s cabinet table; the other is blind obedience. Johnson may have been the first and most effective superspreader of this virus of insincerity; with the help of his accomplices he has now managed to infect most parts of British public life. The surreal circus around partygate is just one of the most pronounced symptoms in recent months.
The facts of the matter couldn’t be clearer: Boris Johnson attended parties he himself had forbidden and then misled parliament about having done so, a breach of the ministerial code so fundamental that his resignation is long overdue. Just as the rules against deliberately misleading a court are fundamental to the British justice system, so the rule that ministers do not lie or deliberately mislead parliament is fundamental to the ability of MPs (and thus the British people) to hold the executive to account.
Yet it was in no lesser place than parliament that Suella Braverman, the Attorney-General, refused to confirm that Boris Johnson would resign — even if the official report by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, not yet published in full, reaches the conclusion that he lied to the House. Instead, she said: “Fundamental to the rule of law is also democracy and I’m very proud to be supporting this prime minister, a prime minister who has honoured democracy by delivering Brexit.”
This is at best a bizarre argument, especially coming from the government’s most senior legal adviser. It is, after all, not democracy which is fundamental to the rule of law but rather the rule of law which is fundamental to democracy. And once this is eroded, democracy swiftly collapses in on itself.
Then again, the very term “democracy” has long been hijacked by some Tories, taking this conceptual noun like a sledgehammer to inconvenient constitutional rules and conventions, and their defenders. When a Tory MP such as Lucy Allan claims that it would be “anti-democratic” to force Johnson to resign in view of the “huge personal mandate” with which he was elected, she undermines the very foundations of British parliamentary democracy. However well it would suit Johnson’s populist style, we are not yet living in a presidential system where powerful heads of state are elected on the “will of the people”.
There is a good essay from 2020 by the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum in which she examines the phenomenon of political complicity. She concludes that there is usually a delay between a party becoming led by someone unethical and the party itself adopting unethical patterns of behaviour; once this adoption has taken place, however, the floodgates are opened and the tide of amoral radicalisation submerges all before it.
The US Republicans offer a glimpse into an unsettling future, one that the British Conservatives are closer to than they’d like to think. Government ministers being sent out again and again to defend the indefensible have long made the dishonest patterns of their leader their own.
Occasionally they even go a step further. Like the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, who, after a news story about school pupils being asked to write to the Prime Minister criticising his duplicity over Partygate, was quoted in the Daily Mail as follows: “While there is a clear need for schools to address political issues in the classroom from time to time, this must not be done in a partisan way… No school should be encouraging young people to pin their colours to a political mast.”
So it is now “partisan” to point out the objective truth that Boris Johnson lied repeatedly and is continuing to lie. This is just an opinion and, as such, merely a point of view in the culture wars. Once again, the difference between truth and lies, normally a prerogative in the school curriculum of every democratic country, is being blurred, this time by the education secretary himself.
I could keep adding names — so many, actually, that, while everyone is distracted by the fate of Boris Johnson, we lose sight of the real question: Is the Conservative Party still capable of rowing back to its core values? Or would doing so inevitably lead to its own destruction, because its whole existence now relies on the fantasies and false promises of Brexit?
In recent months my slumber has often been disturbed by the same dream: the ropes mooring my canal boat come loose and I find myself drifting first down the Grand Union Canal, then the Thames, and finally out to sea — towards the mighty waves of the Atlantic ocean and an almost certain demise. I sometimes feel this recurring nightmare might be symbolic of what awaits the whole country if the Tories can’t get a firm hand on the tiller and steer it back into calmer waters. Bundling Boris Johnson off the bridge would only be the start.
Translated from the German by Brian Melican