Australia isn’t the only polity to deal with the problem of a national leader who is a serial liar — plainly, the United States, reflecting the adage that everything is bigger over there, had to deal with the pinnacle of the form. But the United Kingdom continues also to be governed by a man with a near-Trumpian contempt for truth.
Boris Johnson, perhaps to an extent even greater than Trump, has made a career out of lying, right from his days as a media figure. Lying has been part of his shambolic shtick as a writer, as a man, and as a politician. A serial adulterer with an unknown number of children, an incessant fabulist about the subjects of his “journalism” (usually the European Union), and a remorseless peddler of falsehoods as a politician — most especially around Brexit — Johnson makes Trump look like the Johnny-come-lately of lies; a nouveau menteur.
In comparison, Scott Morrison, lacking either Johnson’s Eton-and-Balliol loosely-worn classicism or Trump’s New Yawk braggadocio, is a pale imitation — the Are You Being Served Down Under? of liars.
Johnson’s penchant for lying has been dissected by his former close adviser, Dominic Cummings, who has in recent weeks exposed Johnson’s lies around his government’s hopelessly inept handling of the pandemic. Overnight, in testimony to a House of Commons committee, Cummings gave shocking evidence of Johnson’s refusal to take the pandemic seriously and his dismissive attitude to COVID — which led directly to the deaths of tens of thousands of Britons.
Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.
In a recent book on Johnson, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, political journalist Peter Oborne — who has lost gig after gig in the UK conservative quality press due to his penchant for truth-telling — completes a kind of “trilogy” on political lying, after two previous books devoted to Blair-era arch-spinner Alastair Campbell and Blair-Campbell’s Iraq war lies.
His new book digs deep into Johnson’s incessant lying, how it continues the contempt for truth that began in the Blair years, and the attitudes it reveals — especially the idea that truth-telling is something great men don’t need to bother with; that the true statesman is happy to mislead voters, who are too intellectually feeble to grasp the truth properly.
Another benefit of Oborne’s book is that it elicited an extended review by Ferdinand Mount, not merely an accomplished journalist, essayist and novelist, but Tory royalty — an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and whose cousin is the mother of David Cameron. Mount, a long-term critic of Johnson and the Brexit crowd, not merely flays the British leader, but offers some worthwhile insights into political lying.
He nails that Johnson’s long history of lying has been successful because he has refused to present himself as a figure of substance: “The prime minister’s oafish betrayals, his ghastly puns, his shameless self-contradictions are not to be taken seriously because he is not posing as un homme sérieux. And the same is true of his lies. You have to laugh, or you are a prig.”
But as Mount notes, it’s also a cover. In a phrase that uncannily applies to Scott Morrison, he notes “the big lie often seems to be a means of avoiding serious calculation about the future, designed not only to deceive the public but to lull the liar into a false belief that the problem has been solved”.
Isn’t that Morrison, perfectly rendered? The man who thinks there’s no need for more action on climate change because of the “meet and beat our targets” lie.
The man who thinks there’s nothing wrong with the standards of behaviour of his staff because he’s invented a harassment complaint in a news organisation. Who thinks policies to encourage electric vehicle use are bad because they can’t tow trailers or reach camping spots (after his own government was promoting electric vehicles, of course). Who thinks there’s no issue about the way tens of thousands of Australians remain stranded overseas, and that most Australians are banned from leaving, but Tony Abbott can come and go from the country as he pleases, because he says Kevin Rudd left the country too.
Lies to cover a lack of substance, a lack of seriousness, a lack of willingness to do the hard work of government, which is to take on complex issues and seek outcomes in the national interest. Cummings’ evidence has exposed that in the worst possible way in relation to Boris Johnson’s response to the pandemic. Much the same could be said about Morrison’s glib refusal to accept responsibility for quarantine, his fumbling efforts on repatriation and his failure on the vaccination rollout — the subject of two of Morrison’s demonstrated lies.
It’s noteworthy that Morrison comes from a marketing background, and approaches politics as an endless series of marketing problems that can be addressed with announcements and deception, rather than actual policies.
Johnson is from a media and entertainment background — the journalist-turned-political-commentator-turned-panel-show-regular, while Trump, a mediocre (to be generous) property developer and occasional soft-core porn host, found his true calling on reality television, the least aptly named genre in history given its rampant deception and manipulation of audiences.
Does the success of serial liars Trump, Johnson and Morrison reflect some profound shift in Anglophone political customs, some cultural moment in which the ad campaign, the panel discussion, the fakery of the reality show, came to supplant the substance of government for voters?
Or just bad luck that three glib liars coincided in the leadership of their nations?