There's nothing there

Boris Johnson and the art of lying

in Big Issues

Pissed-off Toff explores Boris Johnson’s shameless use of dishonest rhetoric, and concludes that he is a natural born liar.

“I can’t bear to see him on the telly any more,” a friend recently wrote to me, concerning the prime minister; “nor can I even bear to read about him in the papers.” I have felt that way for a long time. So angry does the TV news make me, that it is nine months since I last watched it; and I read the papers less and less often. 

However, now that there is a ten-year-prison sentence for fibbing about having been to so-called ‘red list’ countries such as Portugal; now that except in the most limited circumstances, it is illegal to leave this country; now, in other words, that we are living in a fully-fledged dictatorship that Stalin might have envied, my hatred of the clown who has enslaved the nation is more intense than ever. When I am not sunk in apathy or stunned with disbelief, I am fuming with rage.

“Cheer up,” I am told, in the rare instances when I now speak to anyone. “Think positive.” Or, worse still: “We’ve all just got to get on with it.” Really? ‘Think positive’, when the very fabric of our society has been destroyed with the willing co-operation of the majority of the population? ‘Get on with it,’ when for the last year I have been living under something close to house arrest? We are witnessing our own reduction to serfdom. That, I would say, is ‘negative’; and I won’t pretend otherwise.

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I used, once, to be in favour of Johnson, if only because his antics had some entertainment value, as did his dishevelled hair and his Bertie-Woosterish turn of phrase. Indeed, Boris Johnson is primarily a manipulator of language, a soap-box orator, a sloganeer; and it is primarily through his use – or abuse – of rhetoric that he reveals himself.

We have, first, his use of posh public-school slang, with Latin tags thrown in at regular intervals. To this I have no objection … though let us be clear that Boris Johnson is not faintly ‘posh’. He’s a scholarship boy from an entirely insignificant middle-class family.

But if, as an orator, he makes use of his Eton education; if he likes to address his audience as ‘my friends’; or if, when mayor of London, he constantly talked up the capital, in gung-ho manner, as ‘the greatest city in the world’ … there’s nothing much wrong with this. Nor is there anything particularly dishonest about many of his linguistic flourishes, such as his talk, in the spring of last year, about the need to ‘flatten the sombrero’ of Covid infections.

Or take a couple of other Covid-related pronouncements. “We have talked for a long time about the distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill [sic],” he said in November of last year, with reference to a possible vaccine for the virus. “Tonight that toot of the bugle is louder, but it is still some way off.” Then: “I just don’t want to let people run away with the idea that this development is a home run, a slam dunk, a shot to the back of the net, yet.” And how about, more recently, his warning that we must avoid “taking our foot off the beast,” or his admonition that “it is the season to be jolly, but it’s also the season to be jolly careful.” The locker-room rhetoric was annoying, as were the references to his ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal. But again: whilst the appeal of this language has worn thin, there’s nothing essentially wrong with it.

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All too frequently, however, Johnson’s rhetoric isn’t just a little overblown. It is downright dishonest. When, in May of last year, he claimed that we would emerge from his lockdown “more resilient, more innovative, more economically dynamic, but also more generous and more sharing,” that was a lie, pure and simple: you cannot honestly claim that if you shut a country down, it will become more economically dynamic. Take, too, his promise of a “world-beating” track and trace system. Empty words, again.

Then in November 2020, Johnson claimed that without a second lockdown, treatments for cancer and heart conditions would be put at risk. “Now is the time to prevent a medical and moral disaster,” he claimed. In other words, he falsely suggested that treatments for these diseases were at the time proceeding normally; whereas in fact the NHS had already turned into a Covid-only service. Thus Johnson’s ‘medical and moral disaster’ of non-diagnosis and non-treatment of heart disease and cancer had already come about … and his own government was responsible.

Take, too, his talk of the prospects for a vaccine. “I believe that these technical developments will enable us to defeat this virus by the spring, as humanity has defeated every other infectious disease,” he said, towards the end of last year. What?! ‘As humanity has defeated every other infectious disease??’ This is pure fiction.

Lastly on the topic of the virus, consider Johnson’s claim, a few months ago, that he had “an indecent amount of brilliant ideas” about how to get the country going again, post-Covid. That’s not rhetorical hyperbole. It’s casual dishonesty.

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Famously, his hero is Winston Churchill. When, in one of his greatest wartime speeches, the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough could promise only “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” the rhetoric was effective because it had substance. By contrast, Johnson’s rhetoric derives from empty showmanship … and lies. 

I was forcefully reminded of this the other day. As he was preparing to broadcast an address to the nation announcing another lockdown (I can’t remember whether the second or the third), we caught a glimpse of him grinning furtively at the cameraman, like some naughty schoolboy. The impression, left indelibly on my mind, was that for Johnson this speech of great import was a jape, an amusing charade, a pantomime performance.

For our prime minister, therefore, it is the show that matters. Truth is neither here nor there. We see this time and time again. As Rory Stewart wrote in the TLS in late 2020, Johnson is “an amoral figure” and “the most accomplished liar in public life.” Or take the more recent verdict of the French diplomat Sylvie-Agnès Bermann. Johnson, she says, is “a congenital liar.”

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And when Johnson doesn’t reveal himself to be a liar, he shows himself to be an incompetent, amateurish and ill-prepared. “The UK certainly won’t be walking away from the talks,” he said last December, with regard to a Brexit deal. Even I am aware that in any negotiation, you must know what you want as a minimum, and you must be prepared to walk away if you don’t get it. Anything else is not negotiation, but petition or surrender; so to say that you will never leave the negotiating table is to say that you will, in the end, take what you are offered. Fool that he is, Johnson did just that.

Just occasionally, though, he appears to believe in something; at which stage matters become worse still. Here he is, in December of last year, shortly before the UK co-hosted the absurdly-named Climate Ambition Summit. “Climate change is one of the great global challenges of our age,” Johnson said, “and it is already costing lives and livelihoods the world over. Our actions as leaders must be driven not by timidity or caution, but by ambition on a truly grand scale. That is why the UK recently led the way with a bold new commitment to reduce emissions by at least 68 per cent by 2030.” 

Ambition on a truly grand scale’?? In other words, not only is this country heading for lockdown-induced bankruptcy in any case, but if and when we are released from house-arrest, Johnson will sign off our national suicide by closing down what little remains of our industry … all this in pursuit of an insane ‘green’ agenda, and despite the fact that almost no-one else has any intention of following suit. So that even if you accept the thesis of ‘man-made global warming’ (which, together with countless others, I absolutely do not) … even if you accept this superstitious credo, our economic self-destruction will still be an entirely pointless gesture.

* * * * *

It is too painful to go on. So let us conclude with a Johnson-related anecdote from earlier times, provided by a correspondent who wrote in to the present blog, and which has never yet been told. 

Years ago, when our prime minister was still a hack journalist, he was a guest at the writer’s family home in the Welsh marches. ‘Being a fool’ (to quote the words used), the Turk – overweight even in those days – insisted on ‘having a go’ at rock-climbing in Snowdonia, in shorts and squash shoes, and on a route ill-suited to beginners. Here, stuck half-way up an almost sheer cliff-face, he was saved only by the most extreme exertions of my correspondent, on whose shoulders he was perched, and of the lead-climber above, who somehow winched him up the final ‘pitch’ or section, inch by inch, with Johnson’s knees shedding blood and his arm-strength drained by panic and exhaustion.

This story, it strikes me, might have had a happier ending … one which would have seen a clownish Moriarty tumbling to his death on the rocks below, and the elimination of the mendacious albino who has imposed a dictatorship on the country which invented parliamentary democracy.

Ma purtroppo la scampagnata non è finita così.

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