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19 June 2020

Boris Johnson keeps lying because he knows he’ll get away with it

The PM appears to believe he’ll thrive in a world where no one believes a word politicians say – and he may be right.

By Jonn Elledge

The definition of insanity, it’s frequently if unclinically, been said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Boris Johnson has been doing the same thing at every given opportunity for years; this isn’t insanity because the result he gets is, presumably, the one he wants. Yet there are many – I am one – who still hold out an irrational hope that the old, old story will have a different ending this time. I’m beginning to think we are all quite mad.

The latest example of this is the tale that played out during the first half of this week, as footballer Marcus Rashford managed, at the age of 22, to do more good than most of us ever will. On 15 June, he tweeted an open letter to MPs, calling on them to guarantee food vouchers for the poorest families – the equivalent of free school meals – throughout the summer. 

The government spent the next two days laughing off the possibility it would do anything of the sort, as if it was self-evidently ridiculous that, having found £350bn to prop the economy up during the pandemic, it might spare another £120m to feed some poor kids. Then, with the inevitability of a Ukip councillor doing a racism, it U-turned. Boris Johnson congratulated Marcus Rashford on the success of his campaign against the government of Boris Johnson, adding that he “only became aware of [the campaign] very recently – today”. 

It is just about possible, I suppose, that this is true – that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can go 36 hours without turning on the news, or wondering what is going on in parliament and so on. If so, however, that would suggest a quite staggering degree of ineptitude on the part of his staff, and I know they are staggeringly inept, but come on.

So the more plausible possibility seems to be – he was lying. To avoid the tacit admission that, as recently as 15 June, the Prime Minister was intensely relaxed about poor kids going hungry, he told a lie, that everyone could see was a lie and which anyway made him look stupid. Boris Johnson lied; dog bites man.

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This is not the first time this has happened; I’m not sure it’s among the first thousand. A few weeks ago, Johnson was making statements of questionable truth about his knowledge of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham, and whether it broke the government’s own lockdown rules. (It did.) Earlier in his career, he lied about everything from Brexit, to his personal life, to London’s never-to-be-built Garden Bridge. The day before last December’s general election, he lied to an interviewer about his intention of giving the interview that he’d promised, and then hid in a fridge to avoid it. And the entire nation saw it, because the whole thing happened on live television. It’s not just that the PM says things which aren’t true: it’s that he does so when honesty would be vastly less embarrassing.

So why does he do it? Perhaps it’s a compulsion. Some smoke; some drink; some unconvincingly claim never to have heard of Naga Munchetty despite the fact they’re Prime Minister and she had dominated the news for the past 24 hours.

Or perhaps the answer’s simpler. Perhaps he simply knows that he’ll get away with it. After everything he’s done, Johnson still has cheerleaders in the media, of the sort that would make the editor of Pravda cringe. And the day after he hid in the fridge, remember, he won the biggest Tory majority in decades. Lying works. Why tell the truth?

But there’s a more sinister possibility I can never quite stop thinking about. Hannah Arendt wrote that the point of propaganda was not to propagate lies, but to erode the public’s faith in the truth. A country that’s lost faith in its governing class is more likely to plump for a party typified by a populist blowhard than one that still believes better things are possible. So does Johnson lie, obviously and unnecessarily, because he will thrive in a world where no one believes a word politicians say?

Maybe this is conspiracy thinking. Maybe I’m just starting to lose it. When Johnson said he’d only just become aware of Rashford’s campaign, the internet was filled with howls of derision, about how our Prime Minister is lying and making himself look ridiculous in the process. But every time he does this, we point and we laugh, like this absurdity will somehow damage him, and every time he seems to come out ahead.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So is Boris Johnson driving us all mad?