Politics as entertainment
‘High Tory’ journalist Peter Oborne says that behind the jovial mask Boris Johnson is undermining the very fabric of the modern democratic British state
The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism, by Peter Oborne. Published by Simon & Schuster UK; £12.99 RRP
Despite the shameless abuse of the truth, being sacked twice in his career (by The Times and by then Tory leader Michael Howard) and a rackety private life, Boris Johnson has climbed to the top of the greasy pole and into Downing Street - and many ask themselves, how did he get away with it? Peter Oborne’s polemic The Assault on Truth skewers with forensic detail the blatant disregard for the truth that propelled the young Brussels journalist for the Daily Telegraph, who specialised in such stories as the EU banning prawn cocktail crisps and plans to standardise coffin sizes, to presiding as prime minister over Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
Such stories from Brussels, while eye-catching, are the forerunner of the ‘fake news’ culture, so beloved of Donald Trump. They helped frame the anti-European narrative that is still with us today, despite the Brexit free trade agreement. Oborne, a High Tory who has repented his support for Brexit, writes with all the acidity and fury of the disillusioned and betrayed. His basic premise is that Johnson, behind the jovial mask, is undermining the very fabric of the modern democratic British state with unjustified attacks on the BBC, the judiciary, parliament and the civil service in the cause of his own personal advancement – basically, any institution that stands in his way. And that makes Oborne very angry. All previous prime ministers have been devious on occasions – it goes with the job – but, until Johnson, they generally respected the long-established parameters of public discourse and behaviour. They knew there were boundaries that you crossed at your peril. Johnson has no such inhibitions – in fact, he seems to glory in flaunting his outrageousness in deed and speech. According to Oborne, the rot set in with Tony Blair’s ‘big lie’ over Saddam Hussein’s so-called weapons of mass destruction that never materialised, and Johnson and his now-discarded Svengali, Dominic Cummings, further developed this game plan of playing ‘fast and loose’ with the truth to great success in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The Covid-ravaged NHS is still waiting for the promised £350m a week for the health service.
“The Johnson government is convinced that after Brexit it has a special legitimacy sanctioned by the referendum. This means destroying the constitutional safeguards whose function is to protect British citizens from arbitrary rule”
Peter Oborne, author, The Assault on Truth
‘A form of theft’
Therefore, Oborne, argues that ‘political lying’, an art that Johnson is so adept at, is ‘a form of theft’ as ‘voters cannot make fair judgements on the basis of falsehoods’. In a telling paragraph, Oborne writes, “The Johnson government is convinced that after Brexit it has a special legitimacy sanctioned by the referendum. This means destroying the constitutional safeguards whose function is to protect British citizens from arbitrary rule.” In this depressing scenario, the majority of the media have given Johnson, one of their own, a free-pass that it would not have sanctioned for a more conventional politician. He declines to give interviews to journalists who might truly challenge him, such as Andrew Neil.
Johnson and Trump
Johnson is often compared with Donald Trump, who the American voters kicked out of office at the first opportunity last November and is described by Oborne as ‘Trump’s genteel country cousin, able to sugar-coat his lies with the legacy of an expensive classical education’. Both are exponents of politics as ‘entertainment’ fanned by the continuous cabaret of trivialisation conducted via social media; with serious and complex issues reduced to three word slogans, such as ‘Take Back Control’. Yet Johnson’s morality – or lack of it – is an unflattering reflection of the electorate as a whole, who voted for him in their millions in the 6 May elections and again in December 2019, despite all his well-recognised and publicised flaws. Johnson, while chaotic and dishonest as prime minister, remains the most formable and successful political campaigner of his generation. This is a slim volume but it will be a rich seam for future historical researchers and speechwriters as every lie and fabrication is well annotated with such ‘come-back-to haunt you’ gems as Johnson’s claim to MPs on 22 October 2019 that, ‘There will be no checks between Great Britain and Norther Ireland.’ This is just one of the most glaring deceits exposed, with potentially very dangerous consequences for those living on the island of Ireland. So what is to be done? Oborne has outlined seven relatively small steps that could be adopted that might, possibly, hinder a rampant Johnson, including Parliament taking lying seriously, and raising any lie with your local Tory MP and demanding a correction. I suspect that much more than that needs to be done in the coming months and years to halt the Johnson bandwagon. Oborne recently complained on Twitter that the right-wing press, including the Murdoch papers, has yet to review this volume – this is not surprising as such reviews would throw unwelcome light on the ‘smoke and mirrors’ career of one of the greatest mountebanks in British political history.
By Shaun Noble