Voices: Boris Johnson can’t even lie competently about the Chris Pincher scandal

It’s one thing to have a prime minister who lies skillfully and gets away with it. It’s another to have a leader who is not even very good at lying. Its yet another – a new low – to have a prime minister who is so incompetent that he can’t lie properly, and doesn’t care whether anyone believes him or not.

This is where Britain has sunk to. At least Donald Trump would invent something and stick to it no matter what. His defiance of fact, logic and truth was – and is – awesome, in its own way. In November 2020, Trump declared the presidential election had been stolen from him, the greatest fiction of all, and he maintains it was to this day, to the despair of some of his supporters.

Boris Johnson is simply not in that league. The lines he pumps out of Downing Street about virtually everything just keep changing. His web of lies is poorly constructed – lazily and carelessly thrown together. It requires constant repair. Facts are "clarified", adjectives added and subtracted, euphemisms honed and then corrected, inquiries and investigations instigated to buy time, in the hope problems will just go away or get forgotten. The fresh distortions are added, or new revelations, and it never ends.

This style of government is not working anymore, if it ever did. It has long been making fools of his ministers and spokespeople who keep having to reconcile the irreconcilable, and defend the indefensible. Nowadays, they go on the media and hurriedly add the caveat that they don’t actually know what’s going on, just what the Downing Street press office tells them, and they can’t add anything to that.

It is the same cycle as we witnessed in the Dominic Cummings scandal, during Partygate, in the Owen Paterson affair, wallpapergate, various Brexit disasters, horrendous blunders in the pandemic, and much else. Ministers, MPs and officials are regarded as dispensable, and some are getting weary of it. When you get Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, going on the radio and saying “that’s news to me” about a crucial aspect of the latest sleazy descent into anarchy, after he’s had a personal conversation with the PM, then the game really is up.

We cannot go on like this. We cannot go on like this, to be clear, because tomorrow, or next week, or next month, there’ll be a fresh imbroglio. Or rather one that the media will scramble to properly investigate because they’re still dealing with the last one. Johnson once joked that he would create so much havoc as PM that people would just give up trying to control him. Maybe that wasn’t a joke?

At the moment, for example, we need to know much more about Johnson’s attempts to secure his then undeclared girlfriend Carrie Symonds a well-paid job in government or with the royal family; we’d like to learn the truth about the rumours about unprofessionalism in their personal relations during his time as foreign secretary; and new claims that he used an official jet to get himself and his family back from a private holiday in Cornwall.

Next week? There’ll be fresh embarrassments and distractions. No one is thinking about inflation or peace in Ireland in Number 10. They’re trying to make two and two add up to five.

As the old saying goes, it’s not the crime that gets you but the cover-up, and when the cover-up is so badly thought through and organised as it is in the Pincher scandal, as we should now call it, not even telling the truth will work. In fact, telling the truth just demonstrates that you’ve been fibbing. Johnson has told so many lies about this one that he and his aides can’t remember all the alibis. His story has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

For what it’s worth, and contrary to the various versions put out through his press office, Johnson did have a very good idea of the rumours about Christopher Pincher’s personal habits (as did most people in Westminster). He did not need to obey "HR law" in allotting or dismissing ministers. He was aware of complaints about Pincher.

He was briefed personally by top civil servants about them when he was foreign secretary, and all of that is corroborated by the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Simon – now Lord – McDonald. He has gone public "because No 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth".

How do you get out of that one? You can’t. All you can do is to bluster and boom that it’s just the Westminster rumour mill, and the kind of stuff newspaper columnists rather than statesmen are bothered about, and the public are really impressed with the vision for levelling up and the vaccine roll-out and Ukraine and getting Brexit done. And then find an industrial fridge to hide in.

The point is that the prime minister did two things that were wrong. First, he displayed poor judgement in promoting Pincher to be deputy chief whip, the one in charge of “welfare”, because he didn’t care enough about personal integrity (quelle surprise). Second, he has deliberately misled his own officials, ministers and the public about his actions.

Contemplating the prime minister, I am reminded once again of one of the great political quotes of all time, minted by the earthy ex-president Harry Truman about one of his successors: "Richard Nixon is a no-good lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”

Johnson has been exploiting the natural tendency of decent people to believe what they’re told since his days at Eton. Notoriously, he has done it with wives, partners and girlfriends. As Paul Dacre observed, he has "the morals of an alley cat". Throughout his career as a journalist and in politics, it has been his principal weapon, to such a degree that he doesn’t have much else in his armoury, apart from a certain facility for language, which has naturally been perverted and subordinated to vaulting ambition.

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In the past, he’s been contained because, occasionally, a schoolmaster, a newspaper editor or a party leader catches him out and fires him. Now, of course, he has no boss. The Queen cannot dismiss him, or even deny his outrageous unlawful requests. Peter Hennessy, great authority on the constitution, concludes: "The Queen’s first minister is now beyond doubt a rogue prime minister, unworthy of her, her parliament, her people and her kingdom.”

Johnson is growing imperial. He cannot be investigated by the independent ministerial adviser because he’s in charge of the adviser, and there ain’t one any more anyway. The cabinet isn’t strong enough, morally, politically or intellectually, to know how to do the right thing and rebel. He is accountable to his MPs and the House of Commons, ultimately, but he has his big majority, the power of patronage and their vestigial loyalty. Some still delude themselves that he’s a winner.

The backbenchers had a revolt; he ignored it and told them he wasn’t going to undergo a “psychological transformation”, ie stop lying. He’s not even that interested in what the voters think, because he believes he can dupe them again with a new manifesto of fantasies, and manipulate the electoral commission and suppress the franchise.

All this might be all OK if he were the great Churchillian figure he thinks himself to be. But he’s not; he’s just a pound shop Nixon, a no-good lying bastard.