You might imagine that at some point there will be a reckoning for Boris Johnson on the tragedy he and his government have presided over. Last week Covid-19 took its 100,000th life in Britain, making the UK only the fifth nation to reach that milestone and giving it a higher death rate per million than almost any other country.
The Prime Minister was late to lock the country down in March, late again in autumn, and breathtakingly reckless about the Christmas break. He failed properly to protect care home residents, or to instate a test and trace system functional enough to be effective. To cap it all off, faced last week with the grim evidence of his government’s incompetence, Johnson met it with a lie. “We did everything we could to minimise suffering and loss of life”, he said. He said it twice.
But perhaps that reckoning will never come. After all, last Sunday’s Opinium poll actually saw Johnson edge out ahead of Keir Starmer. Some of this is no doubt down to the government’s success in ordering the right vaccines and beginning the roll-out early, but that isn’t the whole story. Throughout the crisis, Johnson has remained relatively level with Starmer in the polls. Surveys suggest people are more likely to blame their fellow citizens than the government for the recent surge in infections, despite the myriad policy failures Johnson has overseen.
How does he get away with it? Will his latest lie work? That pair of questions has studded Johnson’s career. Rivals, colleagues, journalists and increasingly the public are incredulous: how has Johnson made it to this point when he is such a liar (or, as his former fellow Conservative MP Rory Stewart recently put it, “the most accomplished liar in public life”)?
But this may be the wrong question altogether. It may in fact be that the lies are the point. That Johnson’s open insincerity helps him. And that it is a useful political trick that has supported him his whole career.
Here’s a big problem for politicians in general: it’s hard to sound authentic to the public because you always have an ulterior motive. Your job is to persuade people to vote for you, or to trot out the party line, or to avoid saying anything that might get spun against you or your colleagues. You must sometimes feign enthusiasm for a policy you don’t quite agree with, or respond to questions with a carefully crafted set of responses rather than actually answering them.
The trouble is it makes you seem disingenuous. Politicians often try to get around this problem by making a special effort to appear sincere, but voters see through the act – and they don’t like it. The more ostentatiously sincere the politician, the more cynicism they tend to provoke when they do say something that clearly has a political purpose (see Theresa May’s comments about the joys of running through wheat fields, or Andy Burnham’s attempts to persuade people his favourite biscuit was beer, chips and gravy).
The genius of Johnson’s approach is to do away with sincerity altogether. He acknowledges the game and the act. He shows us he is acting – he behaves, in fact, as if some hilarious sequence of events have propelled him unprepared into the role of prime minister, and he is just about holding it all together. He speaks as if half remembering lines a prime minister may have said in a film, not quite keeping the irony out of his voice when he talks about “this fantastic new shopping centre” or “this wonderful local knitting society”. The subtext: these are merely the sorts of things politicians have to say. I do not really mean them.
This squares the circle, even as it makes ordinary people the butt of the joke. The Prime Minister can say the right things – the politic things – and seem authentic at the same time.
Johnson’s trick gives him scope to say practically anything he likes (he’s not actually being outrageous or offensive, he doesn’t really mean it). It subtly mocks fellow politicians who take their jobs seriously. And it makes him much less vulnerable: far greater punishment awaits the sincere politician revealed to be lying than the liar who admitted it all along.
It also lowers our expectations: a picture of Johnson’s brief glance down at his notes as he spoke about last week’s tragic news was interpreted as a head bowed in respect and splashed across papers the next morning. And if he muddles his facts, answers incorrectly on rules his own government made, or seems to have put no effort into preparing, who can be surprised? We never suspected for a moment this was someone who did their homework.
Perhaps this is a peculiarly British trait – a hatred of hypocrisy so great that we’d rather have an “authentic” charlatan in charge of the country. Americans certainly seem to have our prime minister’s number (“shapeshifting creep” is how one former spokesperson for Barack Obama described him). British criticism has been equally damning, but rarely as dismissive. He’s a liar, sure. But oh how well he does it….
Will Johnson get away with one more lie? That he did “all he could” to save lives in this pandemic? It would be his biggest yet. But it should not be a surprise if he does.