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Fintan O'Toole: Boris Johnson is the fool who would play the king

Johnson gets away with unabashed lying because he shifts between joker and politician

Boris Johnson has received 114 out of 313 votes in the first poll to succeed Theresa May as Conservative leader, comfortably topping the poll ahead of his nearest challenger Jeremy Hunt on 43. Video: Reuters

If lies were flies, the swarm around him would be so thick that Boris Johnson would be invisible. His gruff, mock-jovial Etonian tones would be drowned out by their incessant, deafening hum. There is ordinary political lying – evasions, circumlocutions, omissions, half-truths. And then there is Johnsonian lying – bare-faced, full-throated, unabashed. I wonder is this the real mark of how far British political life has fallen: people are so sick of the first kind of dishonesty that they actually find Johnson's upfront mendacity refreshing. Is this the only kind of authenticity some of them can now imagine: the honest liar whose fabrications are unadulterated by any vestigial belief that truth even exists?

When Johnson was Brussels correspondent of the Telegraph, his colleagues from the rest of the British media made up a version of Hilaire Belloc’s Matilda in his honour: “Boris told such dreadful lies/ It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes./ His desk, which from its earliest youth/ Had kept a strict regard for truth,/ Attempted to believe each scoop / Until they landed in the soup.” He got away with it, of course, because mostly what he lied about, in public at least, was the European Union. Even for once-respectable Tory papers such as the Telegraph, the EU has always been a free-fire zone. The rules of engagement are different – minimal respect for facts is not required.

Influential figure

I went back and read Johnson’s Telegraph column of March 16th, 2016. It is important because it is the one in which he announced that he was backing Brexit in the referendum. We now know that Johnson had in fact submitted two columns – the other one arguing passionately for Remain – because he had not, at deadline time, decided where the greatest advantage lay for his own career. Had the other column been printed, Brexit would not have happened: polls show that Johnson was by far the most influential figure in the referendum campaign. On such idiocies the fate of nations turns.

The EU says you can't recycle a teabag – lie

The core of the column that did appear is the intolerable craziness of EU legislation: “Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons, or the limits on the power of vacuum cleaners. Sometimes they can be truly infuriating – like the time I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed.”


The EU says you can’t recycle a teabag – lie. The truth is that some local councils in Britain itself had introduced this restriction: nothing to do with the EU. Children under eight cannot blow up balloons – lie. EU safety rules simply say that packets of balloons should carry the words: “Warning: children under eight can choke or suffocate.” Limits on the power of vacuum cleaners – half true. The EU did have such limits, for good environmental reasons, but they were subsequently overturned by the European Court, which Johnson hates. Johnson as mayor of London being prevented by the EU from requiring safer cab windows to protect cyclists – a flaming beacon of deceit. In 2014, when he was mayor, Johnson actually made precisely the opposite complaint, that the British government was failing to back EU proposals for safer cab windows: “If these amendments, supported by dozens of cities across Europe, can succeed, we can save literally hundreds of lives across the EU in years to come. I am deeply concerned at the position of the British government and urge them to embrace this vital issue.”

False claim

How does he continue to thrive on lies? In part because of a disgraceful dereliction of duty on the part of the Telegraph, which pays him almost €300,000 a year but refuses to hold him to the most basic standards of professional journalism. In April, when the paper was forced to retract a false claim by Johnson that polls showed a no-deal Brexit to be the most popular option, it added that Johnson was “entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions” and that his column “was clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters”.

He operates in the space between politics and buffoonery and shifts from one side to the other whenever it suits him

Comically polemical says it all. Johnson has managed to claim the privileges of the Fool while seeking to play the King. He operates in the space between politics and buffoonery and shifts from one side to the other whenever it suits him. When he is lying, he is making political statements that shape the views of millions. When he is called out on the lies, they are just jokes.

In this, Johnson embodies more than anyone else the weirdly performative nature of Brexit as a jolly jape with real and awful consequences. It is simultaneously tragic and farcical. No one better captures this than BoJo the clown who doubles as Johnson the ringmaster. There is a horrible logic to the man whose own newspaper insists he “could not be taken seriously” rising to lead his country in its most profound crisis for many decades. Who better to speak for a reckless and decadent ruling class for whom everything is desperate but nothing is serious?