Johnson’s shameless litany of lies will cause lasting damage
Trying to console oneself by finding comical elements to the debacle surrounding Boris Johnson’s conduct of government has been especially difficult. He’s done far too much damage to important features of the British constitution that safeguard our democracy and are meant to ensure we are governed responsibly.
He has lied to the Queen, and to parliament. He has degraded the office of prime minister, diminished respect for government and undermined the civil service. Such elements of our constitution are above politics, but his actions have destabilised the key institutions upon which our system of government depends.
Apart from that, there is the collateral damage to Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues, and the wider Conservative party. That is of little consequence, unless one happens to be a Conservative, particularly an ambitious one.
The damage is purely self-inflicted. Ignoring the warnings of many who knew Johnson, Conservatives elected him as leader in 2019, propelling him into Number Ten. There he enhanced his reputation as a “winner” by gaining a substantial majority in the ensuing general election.
He was greatly helped by Labour having a far-left extremist with an unsavoury reputation for tolerating antisemitism as its leader. Johnson fought the election on a rhetorical promise to “get Brexit done”, which he achieved by signing a treaty he didn’t understand – because he hadn’t properly read it – and which included the now infamous Northern Ireland protocol.
Despite having won the election on a lie, which he then considered mitigating by breaking international law, his party felt a debt to him for doing so. They turned a blind eye to a growing series of irregularities, lies and downright acts of deceit, including a particularly grotesque one to the Queen about the need to prorogue parliament.
With just a handful of exceptions, those with minds of their own – normally the most valuable people to include in a government – were not chosen as ministers. The result was a Cabinet comprised of people who knew that only a transactional cynic such as Johnson would ever include them in an administration because he could depend on them to prostitute themselves in the media on his behalf despite his malfeasances.
They share his short-termism: but some must know that as soon as Johnson is consigned to history, their less than brilliant careers will be terminated.
Johnson also has a group of toadies in the media, none of whom (despite professing to be Conservatives) seems to have a clue about the extent of the damage their hero has done to the constitution and to the various institutions that shore it up. One of their refrains has been that if only he would sack most of his staff in Downing Street and replace them with better advisers, all would be well.
The naivete of this contention is breath-taking. Johnson could stock Downing Street full of Henry Kissingers, but it would make no odds unless he was prepared to pay them respect and heed their advice. Since his first concern is always himself, and since he believes himself to be subject to no authority at all, he will not listen to anyone of quality who comes into professional contact with him.
This is not supposition: those of us who worked with him in Fleet Street have seen it at first hand. And his record since entering Downing Street is abominable. He set an appalling precedent by arranging the removal of his cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, and replacing him with a cipher, Simon Case.
Sir Mark saw through Johnson and deeply disapproved of his lack of probity and professionalism, and therefore had to go. Mr Case, by some years Johnson’s junior, was better at accepting these lower standards and obeying questionable orders. Then Johnson came into conflict with his own standards chief, Sir Alex Allan, who is universally respected and whose judgment and probity are not in question.
Sir Alex investigated the conduct of the home secretary Priti Patel and found her guilty of bullying, and therefore in breach of the ministerial code. But as is his wont when he disagrees with authority, Johnson chose to ignore it and Sir Alex, quite understandably, resigned.
He was succeeded by Lord Geidt, regarded as one of the best private secretaries ever to have served the Queen, who investigated where Johnson found £112,000 to cover the cost of an elaborate re-decoration of 10 Downing Street masterminded by Johnson’s wife. Johnson lied to Lord Geidt too, though claimed he had forgotten an important exchange because it was contained on a mobile telephone he no longer used.
By now, anyone familiar with Johnson’s modus operandi would have recognised what was going on: the prime minister had lied, been caught out, and manufactured a reasonably plausible cover story. Usually, he’s so shameless he just shrugs his shoulders, but on this occasion, he had to concoct a story to make it look as though he hadn’t lied because to lose two standards chiefs in a little over a year would look downright careless.
It was an unenviable position for Lord Geidt, a man of honour whose probity is not remotely in question, who might have inflicted serious damage to Johnson by being the second such man to go. Lord Geidt’s friends differ over whether he felt it the decent thing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt, and to simply rebuke him for carelessness, or whether defenestrating a prime minister was not something he wanted on his conscience. But in the event he stayed, and we still have no idea who gave Johnson the money to pay for Mrs Johnson’s re-decoration scheme.
And then came what has inevitably been called “partygate”: accusations of illegal gatherings in Downing Street that broke covid regulations that Johnson himself had imposed, and at odds with the privations experienced by millions of people – a suffering symbolised by the Queen sitting alone in a stall at the sparsely-attended funeral of her husband of 73 years.
These were parties of which Johnson told the Commons in December he knew nothing, and yet he turned out to have been present at several of them. His pitiful defence then became that he didn’t know the events at which he was present were parties.
This was when his support began to crumble, his and his party’s opinion poll ratings plunged, as even Conservative party activists, outraged at being treated with such contempt, complained volubly to their MPs. Meanwhile his MPs were becoming increasingly outraged themselves at the pervasive influence of his unelected wife, believed to be behind yet another of his lies – the airlift of animals rather than of people from Afghanistan, something Johnson categorically denied having a hand in but which a series of emails now prove was done on his orders.
The parties are now the subject of a police investigation, with the long-awaited report by Sue Gray substantially diluted at the request of the Met. Gray has said that she has “extensive factual information” that can’t be published until the Met conclude their investigation.
At the time of writing, Johnson had belatedly committed to publishing the full report in due course, following demands from his own MP’s to do so, and the consequences for him are not clear. But if more MPs do not pile in their letters demanding a no-confidence vote, then they must accept the responsibility for the debacle that will soon engulf their party.
Every new lie has a corrosive effect on the prime minister’s standing, and one by one those who kept quiet so far are voicing their anger, while those who were active toadies are keeping quiet. Of course, Johnson could win a vote of confidence; but his party is irrevocably split come what may, and to be left in charge of a party in which perhaps a third or two-fifths of MPs have had enough of him will simply ensure paralysis while more revelations are made – and they will be.
Johnson seems beyond learning from examples of honourable behaviour, but he should note that Neville Chamberlain, in every sense a titan compared with him, resigned after winning the Norway Debate in 1940, believing his majority of just 81 signalled a division that he could not hope to heal.
As to who might succeed him if he did go, the obvious candidates start with Tom Tugendhat, the only MP to have so far declared his intention to run. Rishi Sunak has wide support; Liz Truss has a fan club but is also widely considered over-ambitious and lacking in substance.
Michael Gove may try again; he does not lack substance, but is believed to be untrustworthy. Jeremy Hunt has a loyal following and would be the “I-told-you-so” candidate. Sajid Javid is regarded as a grown-up, not least for having stood up to Dominic Cummings in 2020 and resigned rather than have a special adviser of Cummings’s choice foisted on him.
But the idea of a candidate being found by unanimity to prevent a period of infighting seems far-fetched. And whoever takes the Conservatives forward, the legacy of Johnson’s serial mendacity will be immense. No longer can it be assumed that the holder of the highest political office in the land is someone who tells the truth to colleagues, to other MPs and even to the Head of State.
No longer can it be assumed that the members of the privy council who serve in the Cabinet will uphold not just the ministerial code, but the ancient and unwritten convention of not tolerating a colleague blatantly lying to the House of Commons.
We may never know is how badly Johnson has compromised the essential constitutional relationship between monarch and prime minister, but that relationship might yet play a role in this case. Bagehot’s description of the Sovereign’s rights has it that they have the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn.
In 1986 the Queen’s then private secretary wrote to The Times to say that she had, in fact, a “duty” to warn her prime minister if she believed things were going wrong. One constitutional expert I spoke to while preparing this article told me he felt the point had come where the Queen could exercise her right to warn Johnson that his deceitful conduct in office was now so widely recognised that it was undermining faith in the constitutional process.
And a former minister told me that Johnson’s private secretary should be summoned to the Palace and told by Sir Edward Young, Her Majesty’s private secretary, that the Queen was minded to do this, and that Johnson should draw his own conclusions about whether he would like such an exchange to take place or resign first.
What is certain is that the stain on the Conservative party for allowing Johnson into power, and then tolerating him for so long, will linger for years: whether his lies, or their cowardice are judged the worse moral failing will be for history to judge. There is yet a chance for them to atone for their part in Johnson’s unmerited rise by ensuring his fall.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham