The post-truth prime minister

Do the public care if Johnson lies?

Imagine our current Prime Minister in the dock of Court Number One of the Old Bailey, charged with some serious offence that with a guilty verdict would see him sent down for a long stretch. He’s entered a “Not guilty” plea, the prosecution case has been heard and the accused is on his feet, about to give his side of the story “…and I swear that the evidence I give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he states emphatically. The prosecuting barrister raises both eyebrows, while counsel for the defence stares at the floor. There are barely suppressed giggles from the press benches and even some of the twelve good men and women of the jury exchange doubting glances. The judge, consistent in a policy of remaining unbiased by letting the evidence speak for itself, avoids social media like the plague and doesn’t understand it anyway, and rarely reads the papers or watches the television news, thinks that the hushed sense of anticipation for what will follow is normal. But everyone else in court reckons that the PM will be banged to rights as soon as he next opens his mouth.

Boris Johnson is increasingly described as the first “post-truth” prime minister. It’s a chilling Orwellian accusation which with mounting accusations of deceptive policy manoeuvring, Commons accusations and denials and blustering television interviews becomes more and more impossible to deny. “Post-truth” is a simple tactic; say whatever you want as if it’s absolutely pucker, and if called out or caught out, simply double down on the lie by telling another or state firmly that it wasn’t you who spun that particular yarn in the first place. For example, there’s the fact that, on camera, Johnson clearly stated that post-Brexit the UK was all set for a new trade deal with the US and when that deal didn’t arrive, said it wasn’t him that made that claim but someone else. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that prime ministers have never lied before, but this particular PM has an entire Cabinet crammed with ministers who appear only too happy to confirm and even repeat the stream of porkers emanating from Downing Street. In fact, to return to the Orwellian metaphor, in the current political climate it would be unsurprising to see a new Ministry of Truth alongside the Ministry of Fisheries and all the others in Whitehall. And despite reported unease amongst some Conservative backbenchers, with the Tories consistently eight or nine per cent ahead in most polls it appears that the great British public is not so bothered by the stream of “mis-speaking” and “alternative facts”. But if the predicted “winter of discontent” becomes a reality and bitter truths hit home, might all that change? Campaigners such as Peter Stefanovic, whose video on Johnson’s lies attracted millions of views, think the tide is turning. Our surveys suggest that while the PM has been given the benefit of the doubt, few doubt that he is a liar. And for the majority, the truth is ultimately important. Even in politics.

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