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Boris Johnson, a liar? He has no choice

The modern Tory Party has succumbed to such levels of distortion and inconsistency that no honest politician could lead it
March 3, 2022

It’s amazing. You’d think politicians of all stripes would be warmer towards socialism when it’s proved so stunningly successful in the 21st century. The two most effective recent passages of British government have both been from the Keynesian playbook. In 2008, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, to universal applause, saved the banks by state intervention, thereby steadying an uncertain economy. In 2020 Rishi Sunak, who works in the Treasury beneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher, used the power of the state to pay workers’ wages during a second great crisis, this time medical. Socialism is clearly a remedy which is known to work, but to which governments resort solely at times of extreme danger. For some reason, it can only be deployed when survival itself is at risk. Like atheists facing death, politicians convert to practical policies only when terrified out of their wits.

In the spring of 2016, I gave an unpopular lecture in Oxford in which I argued that conservatism was philosophically finished because it no longer made sense. At the time, the Tories seemed to be riding high: David Cameron had just been re-elected and the Brexit referendum lay ahead. I knew that I would make few converts. My case was that there had always been two strands in conservative thinking. On one side was a free-market faction, whose members saw UK Ltd as just one more competitor in a free-for-all global market. They cared nothing for the institutions that held the country together or served any purpose beyond the crudely financial. Their supreme values were efficiency and competitiveness. On the other side lay the nationalists. They believed in the singularity of British culture, they loved a whiff of old imperial certainty, and they were determined to oppose any outside forces which might abrase Britishness—as they narrowly conceived it. They valued identity and cohesion.

It was my view that the priorities of the two groups had become so divergent that no Conservative leader could hold them together. The pre-condition of any free market is free movement of labour. There can be no commercial freedom without it. But putting up new borders was the very thing which romantic nationalists, doing their best to exploit a popular swell of anti-immigrant feeling, were determined to achieve. The last thing they wanted was an equal playing field whereby small entrepreneurs from all over the world would be allowed to land on our shores and offer their services. Keep them out.

The last six years haven’t done much to undermine my analysis. Conservative fortunes have plummeted since they won another election only two years ago against stumbling opposition. The widespread explanation for the Conservatives’ current abject performance is that, in 2019, their MPs made the careless mistake of choosing a flawed and incompetent prime minister, whose shocking failures of probity have engendered an unfortunate and unforeseen breach of trust between public and government. If you believe the headlines, everything is down to Boris Johnson’s character. He’s a liar. What can you do? But in this rare festival of national unanimity, one question goes conspicuously unasked. Why does Johnson have such a horror of the truth? What’s the reason for his constant lying, and what on earth does he hope to gain from it?

You can start to answer this question by looking back to Brexit. Dressed up as an unlikely economic project—did anyone really believe that alienating our biggest trading partner would lead to a new prosperity?—it was in reality ideological. The outcome was always going to be a hopeless fudge. It was never going to satisfy the differing ambitions of a warring party. When Theresa May tried to negotiate it honestly and to make some sense of its manifest absurdities—she did actually address the problem of the trade border in the Irish Sea, and of how to stay friends with our closest neighbours—she was quickly disposed of. 

When Jacob Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan were sent out on TV during the referendum to claim that leaving Europe would mean lower food prices, lower fuel prices and an all-round improvement in the standard of living, they came across—even at the time—as hopelessly unconvincing. They looked like amateur hucksters at a moment when a professional was called for. If the project was to be accomplished, it had to be achieved by someone more capable of eliding the profound differences between the two separate kinds of conservative. What was needed was a sophist, of no particular convictions and with no record of integrity. Self-described as “the most sophisticated electorate in the world,” Tory MPs knew exactly what they were doing when they chose their failed former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.

It is hard to think of a single area in which Conservative Party policy is either considered or thoughtful

Today, we can all enjoy a good laugh when so many Tories pretend that they had no idea what kind of human being they were installing. Where had they been for the previous 20 years? It’s also hilarious to see David Frost, our former EU negotiator, now being forced to resign in a grump. Frost has effectively been forced to concede that the arrangements he and Johnson trumpeted are, in fact, unworkable. It’s hard to think of any public figure so fast discredited by his own achievements as Frost has been. In the present meltdown, it may be satisfying to watch Britain doing what Peter Cook called “giggling into the sea.” With daily evidence of this government’s nepotism and corruption, who’s not taking pleasure in Johnson’s humiliation? Even those of us who lost friends to Covid have felt some bitter comic relief in bleak times. But our readiness to pour scorn on the man who, you may say, only did what was asked of him leaves us short of understanding the far wider problems that will face any Conservative prime minister.

The most common escape route from this present disorder is to claim that Johnson is not really a conservative. But in present circumstances, who is? The Tories have become an ideological shambles. Supposedly the party of small government, they have made government larger than ever. Supposedly the party of low tax, they have upped the tax burden to a level not seen for 50 years. Supposedly the party of law and order, they have refused to admit that government fraud is a crime like any other. Supposedly committed to free speech, they are introducing legislation to ensure all public protest can be personally vetted by the home secretary. Supposedly horrified by no-platforming, they have announced that they plan to censor misleading information on social media but, for some reason, to permit it in print. Supposedly committed to relieving the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, they remain callously indifferent to the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan which they helped to create. Supposedly the party of personal honour and responsibility, they have made a bonfire of ministerial ethics. Supposedly committed, post-Brexit, to closing our borders, they have discovered that we actually need help from willing newcomers if our economy is to survive. Supposedly interested in liberating initiative, they have tied it up in red tape.

It is hard to think of a single area in which Conservative Party policy is either considered or thoughtful. It’s a forest of inconsistency. Is it any wonder that Johnson’s first response to any policy question is to lie? It’s the only thing you can do when nothing you do has any rationale. Conservative historians like to argue that the party’s durability is down to its adaptability. An intensely pragmatic philosophy bends in whichever direction is needed to ensure a stable hierarchy of social order. The Tory genius, it’s said, is for adaptation. But what’s going on right now is way beyond adaptation. 

After the banking crisis in 2008, even Milton Friedman’s disciples in Chicago admitted that free-market theory was bust. The notion that the market was meritocratic—intelligence was rewarded and stupidity punished—was disproved by the sheer number of innocent observers who became its principal victims. Far from ensuring a form of self-correcting justice, the markets were cruellest to those who had no say in them. What, exactly, was “free” about that?

The subsequent breakdown of trust in the economic system led to a proliferation of cowboy regimes—in Hungary, in Poland and, most disastrously, in the US. They all shared a hostility to any kind of international order and improvised anti-foreigner policies on the hoof. In France’s upcoming election, all four major candidates will be nationalists of one kind or another. In Britain, there has been a rapid run of Tory governments which have all refused to prosecute the crooks who caused the banking crisis and instead behaved as if nothing had happened. It is precisely because the Conservative Party has never had the courage to say what the Friedmanites said 14 years ago—“back to the drawing board”—that it found it necessary to elect a leader whom it could safely trust to be flawed.

Yes, of course, Boris Johnson is a liar. We know that. And on certain occasions, yes, he may well lie just for the hell of it and from instinct, in the mad way of people who know they are bound to be caught. But anyone seriously examining the nature of his lies will conclude that strategy comes into it too. The capo dei capi was chosen for a purpose. Johnson’s most urgent task was to disguise the fact that Brexit would always be an act of economic self-harm. At that he has failed. The few crazy Brexiteers who admitted they would still back Brexit even if it damaged the prosperity of people far poorer than themselves gave that game away long ago. But Johnson may still succeed in his second mission: to disguise the failure of his party to think through the implications of the great crash in the century’s first decade. George Osborne and David Cameron rebuilt the structure of austerity with rotten timber. Profound questions of regulation and social justice remain unaddressed. 

Over 100 years ago, DH Lawrence travelled to Italy and looked back at England at a distance. “Tiny she seemed, and tight, and so partial.” Tiny, tight and partial is exactly what we seem today.