John Humphrys - Lying politicians: Do we really care?

March 24, 2023, 11:58 AM GMT+0

Boris Johnson has taken the stand and it will not be long before judgement is passed by his colleagues in parliament. The charge against him – as the whole world must surely know by now – is that he broke the lockdown rules banning gatherings of more than two people during the lockdowns. Not only did he break the rules that he himself, as prime minister, had introduced, but he had deliberately misled Parliament with his denials. That may not be a hanging offence in the outside world, but in the hallowed chambers of Westminster it’s about as serious as it gets. The offender can be banned from the House of Commons and could even lose his seat. It would mean that his political career is effectively over. Does that prospect shock you? Or are you one of those who subscribe to the old joke that you can tell a politician is lying if you see his lips move? In other words, have we become so cynical about politics that we simply no longer expect them to be honest with us? And do we care?

That question was addressed this week by Danny Finkelstein who became a member of the House of Lords after being involved in the upper echelons of politics for nearly forty years. He’s been advising Conservative Party leaders and prime ministers since 1995. And in his weekly column for The Times this week he produced a pretty bleak assessment of the way we, the people, have come to view our politicians. The essence of his case is that some of us want to believe liars so badly that we will go to great lengths to stick with them even as their deception unravels.

Here’s how he put it before Johnson made his appearance at the committee hearing: ‘Boris Johnson will have some friends whatever he says to the privileges committee to answer accusations that he lied to parliament. And he will have some friends whatever the committee decides. And these friends will accuse the committee of bias and his critics of mounting a coup.’

So far, so good for Johnson. But here’s how Finkelstein continued: ‘The number of these friends is diminishing and is no longer enough to carry the day. There will be relatively few people who find his defence (basically that his own guidance was so complicated he genuinely didn’t know he was breaching it) convincing. If the committee finds against him, most people will side with the committee. And if they propose a heavy sanction, most will support it.’

But, as Finkelstein concedes, that leaves the question: why? He answers it thus: ‘Boris Johnson has failed to tell the truth many times in his career. His record of lying is extensive. He has always been able to recover. More than that, he has thrived. Yet now, even when he employs the finest lawyer and makes the best possible case for his ultimately indefensible position, he has lost the crowd.’

That, he says, raises another question: why has this happened? And this is where he moves from the specific to the more general. He suggests that although telling lies in politics is theoretically regarded as a great sin, in practice it doesn’t often cost the liar much. He puts it like this: ‘Most people, on most issues, most of the time don’t follow the details and aren’t in a position to judge who is telling the truth about what. … Instead people adopt the general rule that politicians lie to them all the time, a rule that leads them to discount every statistic, disbelieve any promise, ignore any slogan and assume the accused politician guilty in any scandal.’

If that is indeed the case it raises the obvious question: does it matter terribly much? Surely there will come a point when democracy cannot survive if nobody believes a word the politicians are saying? That, of course, depends on how widespread this distrust has become.

While some politicians despair about what this decline in trust is doing to democracy, and the danger it poses to the rule of law, for others it represents an opportunity. If all politicians are regarded as liars then the cost in effort and exposure of telling the truth isn’t worth bearing. The bleakest assessment, in Finkelstein’s view, is that if a politician just says the first thing that comes into his head there will be no price to pay because ‘most people won’t even notice’. And those who do ‘will think you no worse than politicians who take great care with their facts, because they don’t believe those politicians either.’

Bleak indeed. As a Tory insider for so many years, Finkelstein contrasted the way Theresa May, for instance, repared for Prime Minister’s Questions with Johnson’s approach. Her ‘diligence and recall’ were ‘prodigious’: a sharp contrast to Johnson’s.

The verdict on his appearance before the select committee was divided. The Guardian was, unsurprisingly, damning. Their columnist Martin Kettle confessed that he had been tempted to ‘look away’ … to distance himself from what he called Johnson’s ‘latest attempt to hijack the battered and drifting hulk that is British politics.’ But instead he concluded that the country is ‘too far gone for any lingering squeamishness about Johnson to be permissible.’ The issues that surround him, he wrote, are too important and the dangers of ignoring him too great. He continued: ‘What mattered on Wednesday was that a stake should be driven through the heart of the beast. And, to a quite unexpected degree, it was.’

He thought there were two reasons for that. The first was the way the Commons privileges committee ‘confounded any assumptions that they would be partisan pushovers. Instead, the MPs calmly and devastatingly sliced and diced Johnson and the evidence about Downing Street Covid gatherings he has given this week, in print and now in person. If Johnson thought he was among friends, he was soon to discover the opposite.’

The second was that, once Johnson had made his scripted opening statement he was ‘instead forced to think and speak on his feet and things went rapidly downhill. The unexpected star turn here was Sir Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP whose Brexit credentials are unchallengeable, who quietly carved Johnson’s evidence into pieces, leaving him spluttering and humiliated.’

Johnson’s supporters saw things differently. In its main leader the Daily Mail accused the Commons committee of having already removed most of the safeguards usually given to the accused, not least the presumption of innocence. It continued: ‘It was as if their intention over three hours of taking evidence was not just to take him down, but to crush him. Mr. Johnson has already … apologised for having inadvertently misled the Commons over his knowledge of lockdown busting parties in number 10. He accepts his claim that gatherings adhered to COVID rules and guidelines at all times was wrong, but insists his statements were made in good faith.’

In 10 months of forensic evidence gathering, says the Mail ‘this kangaroo court has found not a shred of proof that he did. Like a bunch of second rate witchfinders, the committee cast doubt on Mr Johnson's assertion that he had relied on official assurances that various rule-breaking gatherings had been permitted. Some will argue that if the former premier was confused by his own lockdown rules, how could he expect the rest of the population to decipher them? Indeed, thousands were unsparingly penalised and not let off on technicalities. If, as expected, Boris is found guilty his political career will hang in the balance. He could face a byelection and lose his seat. So Tory MPs voting on any sanction must keep a sense of perspective. Britain is facing myriad problems, from the cost of living to war in Ukraine. The last thing we need is interminable arguments over Partygate. The country has moved on. It's time the Commons did too.’

Where do you stand in all this? Specifically in the case of Boris Johnson do you think he deliberately misled the country and should be suspended from the Commons? And if that meant the end of his political career would you celebrate or bemoan the loss? And on the broader question of truth in politics, do you agree that most people take the view that most politicians lie to us most of the time? Are you one of those people?

Do let us know.

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