OPINION

Boris Johnson's lies are plunging Britain into a dark morass

WHAT will she be thinking when he next tips up at Buckingham Palace? Queen Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest reigning monarch. As titular head of state, she has granted regular weekly “audiences” to her prime ministers for 67 years. There have been 14 in all – the first, Winston Churchill, the latest, Boris Johnson. The Queen has not divulged a word from these private encounters. Now she hears that, just two months in office, Mr Johnson has been lying to her.

It is a fair guess that one or two others among the 14 may have occasionally shaded the truth. I wonder if Anthony Eden was entirely honest about the Suez debacle? Mr Johnson, though, has put himself in a class of his own. He stands charged by three senior judges with premeditated deception in persuading the Queen to suspend parliament so he can force through Britain’s departure from the EU on Oct 31.

This prime minister, of course, is no stranger to mendacity. But lying to Her Majesty? Deceiving someone so widely respected around the world for her probity and commitment to public service? It is hard to think of a sharper collision between mendacity and integrity.

Such is the dark morass into which Mr Johnson’s government has fallen in pursuit of his obsession to meet the Brexit deadline. When MPs were sent home from Westminster for five weeks until mid-October, the official story was that the government needed time to draw up a new legislative programme. Three senior Scottish judges concluded that this was deliberate subterfuge: Mr Johnson’s real objective was to frustrate the efforts of MPs to block his path to a no-deal Brexit. The suspension, the court ruled, was therefore unlawful.

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The High Court in London took a different tack. It declined to comment one way or the other on whether Mr Johnson had told the truth. Instead, the English judges said they were being asked to determine matters beyond their competence. It was not for the court to decide on a matter that they deemed to be essentially political.

It has been left to the UK Supreme Court to make a definitive ruling. The prime minister’s desperate hope is that a majority of the 11 chief justices take the non-justiciable path set out by the English court. The damage has been done. You will not find a soul in the long corridors of Whitehall who believes that the prime minister whom they are sworn to serve is telling the truth.

Two former Conservative prime ministers – John Major and David Cameron – have joined those accusing Mr Johnson of seeking to suppress parliamentary debate. Mr Major is among those appearing in person before the Supreme Court to argue that the prorogation was an abuse of power. Mr Cameron, who bears much of the responsibility for the present mess, due to his reckless decision to call the EU referendum in 2016, has used the publication of his memoirs to launch a series of broadsides against Mr Johnson’s habitual lying.

The present prime minister and his fellow Brexiter Michael Gove, Mr Cameron charged, quite simply “left the truth at home” during the 2016 referendum campaign. Back then, the three politicians were pals. Mr Cameron now says that Mr Johnson never even believed in Brexit. He embraced the Eurosceptic cause purely to advance his consuming personal ambition by winning favour among Tory Brexiters.

Mr Gove, Mr Cameron added, promoted the mendacious and borderline racist claim that just about the entire population of Turkey would soon be heading for Britain if it voted to remain in the EU. Mr Gove has since been given the job of overseeing Brexit preparations. Contemptuous in 2016 of the views of “experts” worried about the costs of Brexit, he is as dismissive now of advice from his officials about the serious risks of a no-deal departure from the EU.

At this point, some may be tempted to shrug. Put lying to the Queen to one side and fear and loathing among politicians in the same party is hardly new. As for Mr Johnson’s lies, well, no one trusts politicians. What matters is that the government gets on with Brexit, even if it means crashing out of the EU.

JUST ANOTHER FALSEHOOD

As for shutting down parliament, well, MPs were obstructing what Brexiters have solemnly declared to be “the will of the people”. This, of course, is just another falsehood. Of those who voted in the 2016 referendum, some 52 per cent backed Leave. Of those eligible to vote, the proportion was 37 per cent – scarcely the will of the people.

Dry constitutional debates about the respective authority of the government, parliament and the judiciary matter. And the frantic back-stabbing among senior Tories speaks volumes about the truly sorry condition of British Conservatism. Neither should obscure the bigger picture of the damage being inflicted on the nation’s democracy.

The lying reveals a profound disdain for the traditions, institutions and laws that sustain Britain’s parliamentary ecosystem. Whitehall officials said that rules of proper behaviour are simply torn up. “We can do as we please”, runs the refrain in Downing Street.

Mr Johnson’s public refusal to say he will uphold the law in all circumstances underpins this contempt. If the government can cheat, it will; Mr Gove’s preference for “listening to the people” over reasoned argument speaks to the same tilt towards demagogy. Strip democracy of trust, self-restraint and shared truths, and what remains is a majoritarianism of the mob. FT

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