Boris Johnson’s Lies Worked for Years, Until They Didn’t


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After a lifetime of swaggering and dissembling his way through one scandal after another on the strength of his prodigious political skills — a potent mix of charm, guile, ruthlessness, hubris, oratorical dexterity and rumpled Wodehousian bluster — Boris Johnson has finally reached the end. Boris Johnson seems to be in compliance with the laws of gravity.

It’s not that he ever fooled anyone about who he really was. He has been called irresponsible and reckless over the years and lacks any coherent philosophy.

“People have known that Boris Johnson lies for 30 years,” the writer and academic Rory Stewart, a former Conservative member of Parliament, Recent statements. “He’s probably the best liar we’ve ever had as a prime minister. He knows a hundred different ways to lie.”

In contrast to former President Donald J. Trump, another politician with an improvisational and often distant relationship to the truth, Mr. Johnson’s approach has rarely been to double down on his lies or to delude himself for consistency’s sake into acting as if they were true. He recasts them to suit new information as if truth were a fungible idea, no more solid or stable than quicksand.

Mislead, omit, obfuscate, bluster, deny, deflect, attack, apologize while implying that he has done nothing wrong — the British prime minister’s blueprint for dealing with a crisis, his critics say, almost never begins, and rarely ends, with simply telling the truth. That approach worked for him for years — until finally it didn’t.

His government weathered scandal after scandal, much of it centered on Mr. Johnson’s own behavior. He was rebuked by the government’s own ethics adviser after a wealthy Conservative donor contributed tens of thousands of pounds to help him refurbish his apartment. (Mr. Johnson paid back the money. There were also the text messages that he had with a British businessman regarding his plans to manufacture ventilators at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic. This raised concerns about the propriety of the exchange. There was an almost farcical accrual of embarrassing disclosures about how often Mr. Johnson’s aides (and sometimes Mr. Johnson) attended boozy parties during the worst days of the Covid lockdown, flagrantly violating rules the country had set for itself.

In the end, the prime minister’s different explanations for what he knew, and when, about Chris Pincher, a Conservative legislator accused of sexual impropriety, finally tipped the scales against him. It was obvious that he had yet again failed to tell truth.

“He’s been found out,” said Anthony Sargeant, 44, a software developer who lives in the northern city of Wakefield. “The annoying thing about it is that the signs were there.”

“He’s been sacked from previous journalism roles for lying,” Mr. Sargeant went on, pointing to the time Mr. Johnson, then a young reporter, was fired from The Times of London for making up a quote. “Yet there he was, the leader of the Conservative Party becoming the prime minister.”

After helping to bring down his capable but inept predecessor, Theresa May (the ‘Brexiter’), Johnson took office in 2019 with a clear mandate for reform. His populist message, buoyant personality and easy promises to cut taxes and red tape, free Britain from the burdens of belonging to the European Union and restore the country’s pride in itself appealed to a public weary of the brutal fight over the Brexit referendum and eager to embrace someone who appeared to be expressing what they themselves felt.

However, Johnson, like Trump, has put a darker spin on his populist message. He behaved as though he were greater than the office he held. As if the damage that he caused was insignificant so long as he could stay in power. Johnson’s resignation speech in which he pledged to stay in office until the Conservatives could elect a new leader was noteworthy for its lack self-awareness as well as its misreading of the sour mood of his former supporters.

Born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — he began using “Boris” in a sort of rebranding exercise in high school — the soon-to-be-ex prime minister has a long and well-documented history both of evading the truth and of acting as if he believes himself to be exempt from the normal rules of behavior. His many years in public life — as a newspaper reporter and columnist, as the editor of an influential London political magazine, as a politician — have left a trail of witnesses to, and victims of, his slippery nature.

Conrad Black, his editor at Spectator, was convinced that he had lied to him and promised to not serve in Parliament while he was working on the magazine. (He did.) He lied to his constituents when he claimed he would quit his Spectator job after he was elected to Parliament for the first time. (He didn’t.) He was a legislator and lied to Michael Howard (the party leader) and to the media when publicly he claimed that he hadn’t had an affair or gotten pregnant with a writer for the magazine. He had done all that.

He ordered a 2002 employee of The Spectator, to act as him in a bizarre incident that he found funny but which also reflected his lack of seriousness. The New York Times has arrivedThe Times was fully prepared to publish a photo of the wrong person and took his picture. (The ruse was discovered only toward the end of the photo shoot, when the magazine’s publisher found out what was happening.)

When he was the Brussels correspondent for the right-leaning Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s, Mr. Johnson wrote highly entertaining but blatantly inaccurate articles designed to paint the European Union as a factory of petty regulation intent on stamping out British individuality — articles that helped establish an anti-Europe narrative for a generation of Conservatives and pave the way for Brexit, two decades later.

Johnson described the experience himself Many years later, the BBC as akin to “chucking rocks over the garden wall” and then realizing that “everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party.”

“And it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he said.

In 2016, serving simultaneously as mayor of London and a member of Parliament, Mr. Johnson betrayed the Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, when he led the pro-leave side of the Brexit debate, contrary to the party’s position. Serving as foreign secretary under Mr. Cameron’s successor, Ms. May, he stabbed her in the back — and set the stage for his own accession to the job — by Resigning from governmentShe publicly denounced the Brexit agreement that she had spent many months negotiating and publicly condemned it.

During his long marriage to Marina Wheeler, his second wife, his affairs and womanizing were a secret. Marina was the mother of at least four of his seven children. When he had an affair with Carrie Symonds, a Conservative official and mother to two of his seven children, he split from Marina Wheeler.

At least one child is his other, a daughter he had with a married advisor during a liaison when he was (still-married), mayor of London in the early 2010s.

“I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday,” Max Hastings, the Telegraph editor who hired Mr. Johnson as his Brussels correspondent, Once said. In 2019, when Mr. Johnson was poised to become prime minister, Mr. Hastings wrote an article entitled “I was Boris Johnson’s Boss: He is Utterly Unfit to be Prime Minister.” In it, he Mr. Johnson a “cavorting charlatan” who suffered from “moral bankruptcy” and exhibited “a contempt for the truth.”

He was the one who hired Mr. Johnson as a prime minister in his 20s.

When Mr. Johnson was 17 and a student at Eton College, the all-boys boarding school that caters to the country’s elites, his classics teacher sent a letter home to Mr. Johnson’s father, Stanley.

“Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies,” the teacher, Martin Hammond, Write, and “sometimes seems affronted when criticized for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility.”

He added, speaking of the teenager who would grow up to be a prime minister: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”

Isabella KwaiContributed reporting from London


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