“Entirely false”: why Boris Johnson is unfit to be prime minister

Philip Coggan
4 min readAug 30, 2019

On Sunday, August 24th, the Observer newspaper ran a story with the headline “Boris Johnson seeks legal advice on five-week parliament closure ahead of Brexit”. As one of many reporters following up the story, Ian Watson of the BBC contacted Downing Street. He subsequently tweeted

This is the precise wording Downing St gave me in response to the Observer story this weekend on suspending parliament re #brexit: “the claim that the govt is considering proroguing parliament in Sept in order to stop MPs debating Brexit is entirely false.”

As we know, on August 28th, the government did prorogue Parliament from September 11th to October 14th, a period of 33 days, or almost five weeks. This one incident encapsulates Boris Johnson’s career; caught out in a blatant falsehood.

The official excuse for the prorogation was the need to produce a domestic policy agenda and a Queen’s Speech. But a moment’s reflection showed the flimsy nature of this argument. The last three prorogations have lasted three, five and six days respectively. This was the longest hiatus in 40 years. If the need to pass new policies was so urgent, why the long delay?

Even those who defend the government are clear that the excuse was bogus. A Times leader headlined “Calm down” wrote that

The idea that the government had acted to limit the time MPs had to debate Brexit was, said Boris Johnson “completely untrue”. Except it is not

And the prime minister himself said on August 30th that

“I’m afraid that the more our friends and partners think that Brexit could be stopped, that the UK could be kept in by Parliament, the less likely they are to give us the deal that we need. That’s why I really hope that MPs will allow the UK to do a deal and get ready for a no deal Brexit. That’s the best way forward for our country.”

Why does all this matter? Some may shrug and say that “all politicians lie”. But Boris Johnson has a long record of mendacity. He was sacked from the Times for the heinous journalistic sin of making up a quote — in other words, lying that someone had made a particular statement. He was then sacked from early jobs in the Conservative party for denying an affair with Petronella Wyatt — describing the story as “an inverted pyramid of piffle”. He made his name as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, where he made up stories (like banning bendy bananas) about the EU, something that drove rival newspaper correspondents to distraction.

These lies carried on in the referendum campaign when he claimed the EU had banned the recycling of teabags, and prevented children under eight from blowing up balloons. Neither claim was true. More seriously, he propagated the famous claim (on the side of a bus) that the UK sent £350m a week to Brussels; the head of the UK Statistics Authority described this claim as “misleading and undermines trust in official statistics.” He also propagated the idea that Turkey was about to join the EU, saying that

I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is mad — that won’t work

When challenged about these claims earlier this year, he lied again, saying “I didn’t make any remarks about Turkey, mate”.

As well as the lies, in 1990 Boris Johnson agreed to help Darius Guppy, an old friend, discover the address of a journalist, who the latter wanted beating up. Below is a key section of the transcript

Boris: How badly are you going to hurt this guy?

Darius: Not badly at all.

Boris: I really I want to know because …

Darius: OK let me explain to you.

Boris: If this guy is seriously, I am going to be fucking furious.

Darius: I guarantee you he will not be seriously hurt.

Boris: How badly hurt will he be?

Darius: He will not have a broken limb or a broken arm and he will not, er, he will not be put into intensive care or anything like that. He will probably get a couple of black eyes and a, and a cracked rib or something like that.

Boris: A cracked rib.

We have got to this point without mentioning his use of racist and homophobic language. This is the man that the part of “family values” and “law and order” elected as leader and PM.

Nor can his record in office justify his promotion to high office. As London mayor, his most famous achievement — “Boris bikes” — were an initiative of his predecessor, Ken Livingstone. He wasted £52m on plans for a garden bridge over the Thames, £5m for a feasibility plan for an airport in the Thames Estuary, overpaid for the new Routemaster buses and bought water cannon which couldn’t be used and have been sold for scrap. As foreign secretary, he said in the Commons that Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism”, an untrue statement that was seized upon by hardliners in the Iranian regime to justify her continued detention. Those hardliners bear the brunt of the blame but, at best, Johnson was so careless about learning his brief that he put her in danger.

Now this man is in charge of the country and must try to negotiate with EU leaders who are aware of his record, and thus inclined not to trust him. Why should they believe any of his promises, and be willing to do a deal that favours Britain?

Like Trump, Johnson would never have been appointed to be chief executive of a multinational with his record. He did not deserve to be made PM and he has quickly shown that he is not worthy of the post. Not only has he not won a general election, he has yet to show he can command a majority in the House of Commons, a key reason why he is so keen to stop Parliament from sitting. It should be a matter of shame and national humiliation that he holds high office.



Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine