Voices: In lying and getting away with it, Boris Johnson is following in Trump’s footsteps

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Trump had learned his lesson. It just wasn’t the one she meant (Getty Images)
Trump had learned his lesson. It just wasn’t the one she meant (Getty Images)

Unless she comes up with another zinger, the Republican US senator Susan Collins may forever be remembered for an eye-catching comment she made about Donald Trump two years ago. It’s one that Britons should be thinking about in the wake of Boris Johnson’s Partygate scandal.

In Trump’s first impeachment in 2019, Democrats set out a clear and detailed timeline of his effort to extort the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Trump was withholding $400m of military aid to Ukraine while a low-key (but deadly) conflict with Russia rumbled in the eastern Donbas region, a precursor to the full invasion that began this year. To release the weaponry, Trump wanted Zelensky to play along with a scheme to smear the leading Democratic contender to face him in the election, Joe Biden.

Despite the obviousness of his guilt, it was always clear that the Senate would acquit Trump. A two-thirds majority was needed to convict and the parties were roughly evenly split. Nonetheless there was speculation that Susan Collins – a Republican from the state of Maine who was seen as a centrist – might be one to break away from her party’s defence of the indefensible. She didn’t – and she was clear about her reasoning with a memorable line.

“I believe that the president has learned from this case. The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.”

She was right. Trump had learned his lesson. It just wasn’t the one she meant.

Trump learned that if he could get away with blackmailing a vulnerable foreign ally of the US for his own shady purposes, he could get away with anything. So far at least, history has proved him right. Topping his chaotic final year in power following the first impeachment, Trump tried to overthrow the result of the election that unseated him.

Fearing defeat as Biden surged in the polls, he set the stage by undermining the integrity of voting procedures; claimed Biden could only beat him by cheating: repeatedly said he should be allowed to serve another three or four terms (the constitution says two, maximum); prematurely claimed victory before all the votes had been counted; launched a series of bogus lawsuits (most of them laughed out of court); tried to bully a Georgia official into “finding” him the votes he needed to win the state; and then, in a final act of desperation, set an angry mob on Congress to disrupt the certification of Biden’s victory (“if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore”).

So yes, he had learned his lesson.

What does this mean for Boris Johnson and the future of British politics?

A prime minister has been caught breaking the law. He appears to have lied about it repeatedly, both to Parliament and the public. But, the country is told, that’s all over now and he’s apologised and it’s time to move on. More excuses are thrown in to flood the zone: it was only a drink, he was ambushed with cake, nurses and teachers were probably doing the same thing, he didn’t know any of this was against the rules he’d spent weeks formulating, and ... er ... what about Ukraine?

In other words, he’s learned his lesson.

Johnson is famously rarely held to account for his exhausting litany of transgressions, whether private or public. And it looks like the same is true here. The Conservatives may be braced for some bad local election results next month but that looks unlikely to precipitate any sort of coup de grace. As time passes, so does the opportunity to act. Besides, do Conservatives really want to be seen as dumping a disgraced leader for being an electoral liability rather than on a matter of principle? Not a great look.

The question is to what extent Johnson will now, Trump-like, be emboldened by his latest white-knuckle escape act. As The Independent’s home affairs editor, Lizzie Dearden, set out this month, Johnson and his ministers have already misled Parliament dozens of times on a host of subjects, from crime figures to refugee numbers, not to mention his infamous Jimmy Savile smear against Keir Starmer.

With a nearly 80-seat majority and a cast-iron sense of political invulnerability, it’s anyone’s guess what comes next. It still feels far-fetched to suggest, as some have, that Johnson could follow in Trump’s footsteps and refuse to accept the result of a future election that he loses.

But then his behaviour has already veered so far from accepted norms that one can at least understand the question being asked. And if it isn’t that particular outrage, why not something else? Actions that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago become normalised and then escalate as people are forced – reluctantly or otherwise – to accept them and move on.

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As for Trump? Well, his behaviour out of office has now almost lost the power to shock. A couple of weeks ago he gave a TV interview in which he called on Vladimir Putin to help him bring down the president of the United States. It got some coverage of course, but mostly people didn’t bat an eyelid.

Meanwhile, Trump remains the favourite for the Republican nomination for the next presidential election. With both Biden and Kamala Harris polling terribly, and no immediate obvious alternative for the Democrats, he could be back in the White House on January 20 2025.

It’s all very well rehearsing his outrageous actions but, with few in his own party willing to hold him to account, and short of any legal action, that may end up meaning nothing. (The few honourable Republican exceptions like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have been ostracised by their party.)

So as MPs vote on whether they believe Johnson has committed contempt by misleading Parliament, Conservatives concerned with protecting the integrity of Britain’s democracy may want to think about the state US politics has got itself into – and whether they really want their country to follow suit.

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