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Boris Johnson and the new class of liars

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo/Getty Images

Lies aren’t new in politics, but there was a time when politicians made the effort to conceal them.

At a recent wedding of very old friends, one of the guests confessed that she was avoiding another guest because she couldn’t forgive him for the last conversation they had. As she’s not given to dramatic gestures, I asked what the issue was. Politics.

It used to be that politics was a bit like sport, at least among mature adults. Someone supported this party or that policy just as they might support Chelsea or Manchester United. It was a biographical detail, not a character flaw. But in recent years, politics has become poisoned and, as a result, it’s now poisonous.

The first thing infected is a sense of objective truth, the idea that, beyond the usual disagreements over detail, there were facts and these facts mattered. Just recently, new Prime Minister Boris Johnson – and how weird it is to write those words, as if they were composed in an opioid haze – held up a kipper (a cold-smoked fish) during one of his final hustings speeches.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

He told his audience that because of the barmy EU restrictions of “Brussels bureaucrats”, the producer of the kipper had been forced to transport the fish with an “ice pillow”. It required only minor journalistic work to discover that the kipper was not subject to any EU rules and the terms of its transportation were solely a matter for UK domestic bureaucracy.

So, it was a barefaced lie. Politicians have always lied, of course, but there was a time when they made the effort to conceal it, or, failing that, explain it. We are way past such quaint customs now in the UK. Johnson’s estranged relationship with the truth is long-standing. He built his newspaper career – as a correspondent in Brussels – by making up stories about bizarre EU regulations.

But now he’s the most important person in the UK, at least in theory. The lies of his opposite number, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, are another matter. There’s nothing barefaced about them. Instead, he’s convinced he’s telling the truth, even when there is abundant evidence that he is not. A BBC investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party exposed a whole political architecture enabling anti-Semites, but Corbyn’s response was to blame the messenger and repeat over and over that he was an anti-racist.

In both cases, the supporters of these two leaders maintain that there is no problem: “Nothing to see here,” they call out, “just move along.” A kind of demented partisanship has replaced healthy doubt and scepticism. And the knock-on effect is that almost any discussion of politics is no longer about practical assessment, but instead quickly becomes a moral issue of truth and lies.

Bad faith is endemic. There’s a desperate hope that things will change when we finally leave Europe. But the likelihood is that the ill feelings and divisions will only grow, as the effect of the split takes hold. In any case, the departure is by no means guaranteed. It’s rumoured that Johnson will call a quick election – the third in four years – as our politics grows more Italian with each passing day.

If he does, it will be because he’s relying on the astounding uselessness of Corbyn, which has him trailing in the opinion polls against the least popular government in modern history. It’s a high-risk strategy, though, as Theresa May discovered. And if he doesn’t go to the nation, he has to rely on a Parliament that has already signalled its opposition to a no-deal Brexit, which is Johnson’s fallback position in the renegotiations he promises to have.

His only other option is to muscle the Queen into bypassing Parliament. That will involve a constitutional crisis of such magnitude that the entire political process could grind to a halt. We can be thankful it’s almost August; the whole country is in need of a holiday.

This column was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.