EU Referendum

Brexit: late to the table


In 2005, Peter Oborne was political correspondent for The Spectator - at a time when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was editor of the magazine. Nearly ten years later, Oborne was to write admiringly in the Telegraph about how, back in 2005, he and "Boris" had "saved the day" in preventing Mark Reckless being elected to parliament.

This is the same Peter Oborne who, also in 2005, wrote a book on the rise of political lying. Predictably – although there are multiple references to journalists - there is no mention of his boss, other than in a fulsome note in the acknowledgements for allowing him to go on a sabbatical "as well as providing instruction about Greek philosophy".

Dredge through Oborne's columns in the Telegraph, when he was chief political correspondent, and you will not find any criticisms of Johnson, although tacit approval is not uncommon.

For sure, Oborne was compromised in writing for a newspaper which had Johnson as its favourite son, but it is nevertheless perhaps a little late for Oborne to pop up in the Guardian with a piece criticising Johnson. One must, though, admire his Chutzpah in writing under the headline, "It's not just Boris Johnson’s lying. It's that the media let him get away with it".

Oddly enough, I posted a piece along similar lines in March 2016, headed "corruption at the heart of the media". In it, I wrote:
Thus, for those then who think this post is another one on Boris "Serial Liar" Johnson, it isn't. It is about the corruption at the heart of the media, a media which embraces a serial liar as one of their own. Despite his catalogue of lies, it promotes him as a fit and proper person to represent the "leave" campaign in this desperately important referendum.
This was just at the time when Matthew Parris wrote in The Times that the, "Tories have got to end their affair with Boris".

In a commentary on the piece, I noted that, in July 2007, Polly Toynbee was writing in the Guardian of Boris Johnson. Then, nearly nine years ago, she called him, "the jester, toff, serial liar and sociopath".

Despite him being even then a prominent person, I wrote, Toynbee could do so without any fear of legal action. And nor had there been any. Yet, in any other circumstance, deliberately to call a public figure a "serial liar and sociopath" would invite terrible retribution through the courts, ending up in costs and damages which could bankrupt all but the richest.

In his then current piece, written three months before the EU referendum. Parris went further, noting of the man generally, that there's a pattern to his life. "It isn't the lust for office, or for applause, or for susceptible women, that mark out this pattern in red warning ink", he wrote. "It's the casual dishonesty, the cruelty, the betrayal; and, beneath the betrayal, the emptiness of real ambition: the ambition to do anything useful with office once it is attained".

In response, I observed that, to talk of a man's "casual dishonesty", his "cruelty", and his "betrayal" was, in the cautious media of the day, "quite extraordinary". That Parris could address it to a man who hoped (or so we were then told) to seek the leadership of the Conservative Party and then the post of prime minister – and who was currently pitched to become "Mr Brexit", the face of the "leave" campaign in the EU referendum – was almost beyond belief.

But in short order, Johnson was torn apart by another of his former bosses, Dominic Lawson, writing in the Mail, although the critique was rather spoiled by the headline: "I was betrayed by Boris too. And like everyone else, I can't help forgiving him".

Nevertheless, there was more than enough material in the article to ruin the career of any normal politician. But, as we've come to realise, Johnson is not in any respect a "normal" politician, coated as he is with a variant of Teflon, previously unknown to science.

This was a man who even in the run-up to the referendum, managed to perpetrate an egregious falsehood about the proportion of our laws emanating from the EU, claiming that sixty percent of UK laws were "born in Brussels".

About that time also, Johnson was addressing the Treasury Select Committee, claiming that "It would not be hard to do a free trade deal with the EU 'very rapidly indeed'".

This was also back in March 2016, when Johnson told the Committee that there need not be any uncertainty. Concern over the problems of leaving, he said, was analogous to scaremongering over the Y2K bug. The sheer negativity about trading deals, he claimed, is because we've "become infantilised".

Asked whether he wanted to access to the Single Market, Johnson stated that the Single Market was a term that was "widely misunderstood". We should "get out from under that system" where all laws were justiciable by the ECJ. My view, he said was that we should have free trade with European partners based very largely on existing arrangements. This was: "A free trade arrangement that continued to give access to UK goods and services to the European continent" – without, of course, freedom of movement.

However, Johnson was forced to admit that there is no precedent for the EU striking a free trade deal in less than two years. Pressed on this, he was unable to name any country that had struck a trade deal with the EU in less than two years. Yet, according to Mr Johnson, this was "one of the defects of the EU", then attacking MP Rachel Reeves for "absolute scaremongering" and talking "total nonsense".

Even then, as I remarked, this blustering approach was his standard approach to anyone who challenged him, a stand he maintained despite Pierre Pettigrew, a former Canadian trade minister – stated in The Times that a Canadian-style deal could not be achieved in a two-year timescale. He was talking in terms of a decade to settle our international trading arrangements.

After the referendum, in July 2016, I was writing on how, even in 1994 when Johnson was Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph, his fellow journalists knew of his "lying and conniving" and treated him with circumspection. Yet at that point, this "lying and conniving" person was made foreign secretary.

This was also the time, incidentally, that we had Andrew Pierce of the Mail writing of the newly appointed David Davis as chief UK negotiator, that he was "clever, tough, and a veteran Eurosceptic with knowledge of his brief … more than a match for the Brussels bureaucrats".

But now, almost as if it was a revelation, we have Oborne writing of the "systemic dishonesty within Johnson's campaigning machine", with "unscrupulous Tory briefers working behind the scenes".

"As someone who has voted Conservative pretty well all my life", writes Oborne, "this upsets me". He continues: "As the philosopher Sissela Bok has explained, political lying is a form of theft. It means that voters make democratic judgments on the basis of falsehoods. Their rights are stripped away".

That is as maybe. But more than a decade ago, Oborne knew exactly what Johnson was about yet, during his employment on The Spectator and then the Telegraph, he kept his own counsel. 

"In theory", Oborne says, "Johnson should not be able to get away with this scale of lying and deceit. In a properly functioning democracy, liars should be exposed and held to account". "But", he adds, "that isn’t happening. As with Donald Trump, for Johnson there seems to be no political price to pay for deceit and falsehood. The mainstream media … prefers to go along with his lies rather than expose them".

Oborne then concludes that the British media is not holding him [Johnson] to account for his repeated falsehoods. "It's time", he says, "we journalists did our job, and started to regain our self-respect". Better late than never, one might say. But, my goodness, it certainly is late.