Politicians Who Actually Enjoy Lying to The Nation
It certainly has its dark side, but sometimes you just have to love Twitter.
A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted Captain Ska, the band responsible for “Liar Liar”: one of the best pieces of subversive musical agitprop we’ve seen in years.
Released in the midst of the general election campaign, it mercilessly skewered Theresa May, and may have played a role in facilitating the kicking the Conservatives received at the hands of younger voters.
I didn’t expect a response when I tweeted my request for a new mix featuring Boris Johnson, who, after that “£350m a week extra for the NHS” pledge during the EU referendum (among other things), is surely the biggest Liar Liar in modern British politics.
But I received a response. It amounted to: good idea, but we’ve got a quite a few requests coming so it might take a while. A while turned out to be barely a couple of weeks when, much to my delight, the Boris Johnson mix appeared in my Twitter feed.
Which got me thinking about the subject of political lies.
“We all know politicians like telling lies / Big ones small ones porky pies,” the lyrics go.
But actually, if you watch them carefully, most politicians don’t. They evade, they obfuscate, they mislead. They refuse to answer direct questions. They often frustrate by responding to interviewers’ questions with their own questions that they answer as they please: “Well, what I think the real question is…” (watch Tony Blair being interviewed).
There are reasons for this. Cabinet ministers, for example, are supposed to buy into a collective line and then defend it in public – even when they strongly disagree with it.
But most of them will try their best to avoid telling blatant lies when so doing, and with good reason. People tend to get very angry when if they realise they have been lied to (so watch out, Brexiteers). Reputations can be destroyed when porky pies are exposed for what they are.
As such, it’s a very good idea to avoid getting caught in one if you can. Better to find a way around it. Like evading. Or obfuscating. Or responding to a direct question with one of your own.
Theresa May, of course, didn’t lie when she said she wasn’t going to call an election after being made Prime Minister. But by performing a volte face within a relatively short time of making such an unequivocal statement – “I’ve been very clear that period of time, that stability, to be able to deal with the issues that the country is facing … I’m not going to be calling a snap election” – May made a Liar Liar of herself, as the song gleefully pointed out.
In reality, she might be less of a liar than she is a very bad politician. If she were better at playing the game, she could easily have hedged her bets by saying something like: “This is not the time to be talking about a general election.”
She might be a bit of both. I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that.
However, if you think she’s deserving of the Liar Liar accolade, she’s a mere apprentice when compared to Johnson.
His most infamous porky was the claim that leaving the EU could produce £350m extra a week for the NHS. He continued to peddle it even after the neutral Office for National Statistics said it was wrong, and he then doubled down on it with his Daily Telegraph article in the run up to the Tory Party conference.
The fact that the claim was qualified within the piece – in which he didn’t make any promises, but simply said that it would be a “fine thing” if a lot of the money (that won’t be available in the first place) went to the NHS – only made the perfidy worse. Mr Johnson, a longtime journalist and columnist for the Telegraph before going into politics, will have been well aware of where their headline writer’s focus would be.
It was deceitful to revisit the claim, doubly deceitful to qualify it, so he could point to the actual wording in the piece during interviews as if that somehow made everything all right.
In his case, there’s no debate. Captain Ska’s remix has the right of it.
There are those, however, who say that Johnson’s elasticity as a politician, his willingness to (as one very senior figure in public life characterised it to me) “say whatever it takes to get out of the room”, might perversely make him ideally suited to take over as Tory leader during the current instability.
If there is anyone who could say, you know what, this Brexit malarkey isn’t really working out, we need to change tack – it might by Johnson.
My colleague Sean O’Grady (who voted Leave) is one who has made that point, suggesting that, like his hero Winston Churchill, Johnson will always put his personal interest first – and this might be where he could serve the national interest by doing so.
I’m not so sure about that. It should be remembered that as Foreign Secretary, Johnson has put his foot in his mouth with alarming regularity, trashing Britain’s reputation with partners it will need when it loses its EU membership.
The latest example came when he opined at a conference fringe meeting that the Libyan city of Sirte could become the next Dubai, before adding: “The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.” A case in point.
It’s fine be flexible as a politician. In many cases, a little pragmatism can be a thoroughly good thing, even if it does occasionally expose you as a Liar Liar.
But it goes beyond that with Johnson. It sometimes seems as if his pants are on fire every time he leaves for work in the morning and, married to his appalling recklessness, that makes Johnson dangerous – particularly given the world we live in today.
Fortunately for us, his colleagues don’t think much of him. But, with the Tory party in a febrile state, what if they get desperate, and stupid? The bookies think there’s a good chance of that happening; he remains the favourite to become the next Tory leader.
It might take more than a good song skillfully inserted into an election campaign to save us, if they’re right to rate his chances as highly as they do.