For sheer chutzpah, I thought, Allegra Stratton’s defence of Boris Johnson on 29 March took the proverbial biscuit.
After Jennifer Arcuri claimed she’d had a four-year affair with the then-mayor of London while he gave her grants and coveted places on taxpayer-funded trade missions, the Downing Street press secretary insisted, po-faced, that the Prime Minister “does believe in the wider principles of integrity and honesty”. It reminded me of Richard Nixon insisting: “I am not a crook.”
But then came Johnson’s Easter message, which outdid even Stratton’s defence of the indefensible for brass-necked gall.
“If there’s one thing Britain’s Christians have shown us this year, it’s that Jesus Christ is ‘the way, and the truth and the life’ – not just today but every day,” Johnson solemnly intoned on Easter Sunday. “His teachings, and the message of his death and resurrection, permeate through every aspect of daily life,” he added, and paid tribute to the “millions of Good Samaritans, each of them showing what loving thy neighbour as thyself really looks like in 21st-century Britain”.
Having co-opted the national flag for narrow partisan purposes, here was our Prime Minister shamelessly co-opting the state religion. Seriously, had anyone heard Johnson utter a single pious statement, or display a scintilla of religious belief, before this sudden eruption of Christian conviction? This is the man who once said his faith was “a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you’re driving through the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes.”
Even worse was the specific biblical injunction that the Prime Minister chose to invoke: “love thy neighbour as thyself”.
Ask our neighbours across the English Channel whether Johnson has practised what he now purports to preach. He has persistently demonised, for narrow political gain, those European member states that were good friends and allies throughout the 46 years that Britain was an EU member.
Ask England’s northern neighbour whether Johnson loves it. He has treated Scotland’s overwhelming vote to remain in the EU, and its desire for greater autonomy, with such contempt that an acrimonious divorce is now very much possible. Ditto Northern Ireland, a province in which Johnson has shown minimal interest, let alone understanding, and whose Unionists he so flagrantly betrayed with his Brexit withdrawal deal.
For that matter, ask anyone who voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum whether they feel that Johnson has reached out to them. On the contrary, he has ignored or derided them as he has pursued a deliberate strategy of division and vilification in order to keep his base fired up.
Johnson’s hypocrisy extends far beyond Brexit. How can he talk of “loving thy neighbour” when his government is cutting foreign aid to some of the world’s neediest and most desperate countries? Or is demonising the immigrants who contribute so much to this country? Or is turning away refugees so desperate to escape the horrors of their homelands that they are prepared to risk their lives to get here?
On the domestic front, the only neighbours Johnson appears to love are those well-connected supporters and wealthy party donors to whom he dishes out jobs, peerages and lucrative contracts.
They do not appear to include Britain’s nurses, the heroes of the pandemic who were rewarded with a niggardly 1 per cent pay rise, or those disadvantaged children whom he sought to deny free lunches to when lockdowns closed their schools.
The Prime Minister is right in one sense. The British people have indeed pulled together during the pandemic. The great majority have looked out for their neighbours and helped one another. But they have done so despite, not because of, Johnson’s government. Since taking office, he has done his best to polarise the country, purging moderate MPs, fighting culture wars, pitting the police against protesters, and attacking the judiciary, civil service, BBC and other national institutions for the heinous crime of being independent.
Before Johnson wraps himself in the cloak of Christianity, he should perhaps remember some other biblical injunctions: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”, for example. Or “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”. Or, particularly pertinent in his case: “Thou shalt not lie.”
Stratton insists the Prime Minister believes in “integrity and honesty”. I’m more inclined to believe two other assessments of Johnson’s character that were offered last week.
In his newly published diaries, Alan Duncan, Johnson’s deputy when he was foreign secretary, described the Prime Minister variously as “a clown”, “an embarrassing buffoon”, “an international stain on our reputation” and an “ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot”. And Johnson’s former lover Arcuri, in an interview with the Sunday Mirror, called him a “cowardly wet noodle”.