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Boris Johnson is out. Now we must restore integrity to British politics 

While the former prime minister must be held personally responsible for his falsehoods, there is no evading the fact that our political and media class enabled him
Boris Johnson, then the prime minister, London, May 2022 (AFP)

First of all, let’s ponder the fate of Boris Johnson. The golden talent of his generation, he struggled all his career for the top job in British politics, and four years ago he achieved his aim to become prime minister. 

He was worshipped in the media, fawned over by Tory MPs, and was for some time the most popular politician in Britain, shaping the country’s destiny.

On Thursday, the House of Commons Privileges Committee destroyed his reputation with the conclusion that he deliberately misled MPs. In common language, he lied to the House of Commons, and thus to the British people. 

No other prime minister since the post came into existence three centuries ago has been found guilty of lying.

Johnson will be remembered by history as the most immoral, dishonest and morally squalid of all British premiers. 

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From now on, he faces a grim future as a pariah. His hero, Winston Churchill, who he sought so desperately to emulate, used to be cheered in the streets in his retirement. It is likely that Johnson will scarcely dare to show his face, so deeply will he be held in contempt as a man who inflicted severe damage on Britain and corrupted our public life.

A diminishing band of supporters may stand with him, including Nadine Dorries, who Johnson made his culture secretary. Perhaps Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Old Etonian known in the House of Commons as the member for the early 19th century.

There’s also a sordid coterie of tax-dodging billionaires and hedge fund managers in Mayfair who will badly miss Johnson.

Perhaps also the Daily Mail, which has done grave damage to its own reputation by remaining loyal to Johnson long after the evidence showing his many falsehoods was impossible to contest. Just a few days ago, the Mail was comparing Johnson to a “tiger” undone by “minuscule nibbling mice”.

Grave consequences

Perhaps a few others who feel a lingering gratitude for recognition in Johnson’s shameful honour’s list, published last week for reasons that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must now explain to the British people and King Charles, will also stand with him. 

That honour’s list - like everything else associated with the ex-prime minister - stinks and should be withdrawn.

Through his time as prime minister, Johnson has contaminated British public life, and judging by the deranged statement he issued in response to the Privileges Committee, he is continuing to do so.

Even Johnson’s friends will, I predict, shortly melt away. The ex-prime minister has no more patronage to buy the support of allies since Thursday’s devastating verdict concludes his political career and ends his utility. 

During his three-year term as Tory leader and prime minister, Johnson inflicted immeasurable damage on British public life

Bear in mind that any connection with the disgraced ex-premier now comes at a high reputational price for anyone who chooses to associate themselves with him.

Johnson attracted support because of his power. Out of power, fair-weather friends will make themselves scarce; indeed, they are already doing so.

I now turn to the graver consequences of the Privileges Committee report, which stretch way beyond the sorry story of a disgraced politician. During his three-year term as Tory leader and prime minister, Johnson inflicted immeasurable damage on British public life through his cronyism, attacks on British institutions, reckless incompetence, and above all, his habitual deceit and total lack of integrity.

So desperate did the situation become that I opened a website to record the falsehoods uttered by Johnson. Leaving aside the partygate lies, according to my records, there were approximately 80 occasions when he misled the House of Commons without correcting the record, thus breaching the ministerial code and parliamentary convention.

Besides partygate, topics spanned Brexit, Covid-19 and the economy. You name it, he lied about it, as Middle East Eye readers will know from reading my columns.

Open secret

Yet for three long years, he got away with his false claims, and we need to ask why. They were no secret. Besides my website, they were well-documented by the due diligence website Full Fact and the public-spirited lawyer Peter Stefanovic. The problem was also raised in parliament by principled MPs, such as Labour’s Dawn Butler. 

So, Johnson’s lies were an open secret. But nobody who mattered cared about them, and it is important to understand why not.

The first reason is the Tory party: It regarded Johnson as an election winner, and for three years, it was thus prepared to put up with his false claims. Ministers and MPs appeared happy to repeat these claims on radio and television, in print, and inside the Commons chamber.

For this, Johnson and his profoundly dishonest Tories needed the support of the Conservative media - and this they could rely upon, right up to the end of Johnson’s now utterly discredited premiership.

Front pages of British national newspapers are pictured in London in July 2022 (AFP)
Front pages of British national newspapers are pictured in London in July 2022 (AFP)

It is a sombre fact that every Conservative-supporting newspaper backed Johnson to win the Tory leadership, for the premiership, and right up to the bitter end.

Newspapers are supposed to hold power to account, but when it came to Johnson’s lies, they gave him a free pass, while delivering plenty of falsehoods of their own. 

The BBC was little better. The corporation’s exciting new Verify project, which says it will expose disinformation and fake news, now has a duty to investigate the BBC’s own reporting on Johnson and his former opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, especially in the run-up to the 2019 general election.

Sadly, the Labour Party under Keir Starmer has allowed itself to share some of Johnson’s methodology of deceit.

It is unusual for an opposition leader to make false statements, because his job is to hold the government to account by asking questions, rather than to run the country. But the Full Fact website has a record of misleading claims made by the Labour leader; it’s time he corrected them. Starmer also made a series of misleading boasts about his policies as he fought for the Labour leadership, as Owen Jones exposed in the Guardian

Democracy damaged

Johnson must be held personally responsible for his falsehoods. But there is no evading the fact that, with a few honourable exceptions, our political and media class enabled him. This culture of lying and deceit does huge damage to our democracy, as the Privileges Committee report states. 

The great question, far more important than the fate of wretched Johnson, is how we restore integrity to our politics. Indeed, a survey from Ipsos last month identified trust in politics as the sixth most important issue facing Britain in the minds of voters.

With fortunate timing, another parliamentary committee, the Procedure Committee, is currently examining ways of obliging ministers and others to correct inaccurate information provided to the Commons. I understand that it is expected to report back before the summer recess.

Boris Johnson has finally quit. But could his exit break the Tories apart?
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Now that liar-in-chief Johnson has quit, it may be impossible to force him to correct the dozens of misleading statements he made in parliament as prime minister.

But no such consideration applies to the many Conservative ministers who have made false statements in the Commons without correcting the record during the last four years of Tory rule. 

A long list of such statements is included on my website, and it would be within the rights of the committee to suggest that ministers should now come forward and correct the record, as should have occurred long ago.

Indeed, Sunak as prime minister should set an example. I listed some examples of his own misleading statements made on the record in this recent article for the Guardian, and Full Fact has also produced a very helpful list

If the current prime minister fails to do the right thing and correct his deceitful statements in the Commons and elsewhere, we will be forced to assume that he is intent on carrying on Johnson’s legacy.

It is good that Johnson has been disgraced, but in the long term, it is much more important that we learn the lessons of this terrible period and restore honesty to British public life.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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