The first lie that showed the truth about Boris Johnson

On his first day in office as Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson declared that “I am announcing now — on the steps of Downing Street — that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.” (Italics added.)

More than two years later, the newspapers are full of stories that the cost of funding social care will be met by increasing national insurance, a tax on earned income. But in December 2019, the Conservative manifesto declared, on a page headlined “Boris Johnson’s guarantee”, that “we will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance”.

So if there was a “clear plan we have prepared” in July 2019, how was it possible for the Conservative manifesto to rule out a NI increase? Funding the cost of social care had to be part of any “clear plan”. One of the two statements was therefore a lie. And it seems most plausible that it was the July 2019 statement; there was no “clear plan” at all.

It is deeply symbolic that Johnson should have lied on his first day in office, as this sums up his entire career. He was sacked from The Times for lying (making up a quote from a source) and sacked from the Conservative front bench for lying about one of his many affairs. In a previous post, I argued that he was unfit for office, and nothing about his tenure has dissuaded me from this view. Remember that when he prorogued Parliament in 2019, in an attempt to limit debate on EU withdrawal, the supreme court declared unanimously that

It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason — let alone a good reason — to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, from 9th or 12th September until 14th October.

It is quite remarkable that 11 justices should completely reject the case advanced by a sitting prime minister on such a matter; it shows how flimsy a case Johnson was able to make. Again, this is symbolic of his entire career; he made his name writing scare stories about the EU which, when checked by other journalists, often turned out to be illusory. He is the wizard of waffle and the titan of trickery.

His “cakeism” approach has revolved around denying the existence of trade-offs — that leaving the EU would not involve any compromises on sovereignty, or that expensive spending promises would not require higher taxes. It is possible to get away with this stuff in the short term but over the long term, the trade-offs become apparent and the lies are revealed, like the unreliable boyfriend whose credit card slips reveal his infidelity.

Sadly, our political system makes it hard to nail down such barefaced cheek; opposition politicians cannot call Johnson a liar in the House of Commons without risk of being suspended. News reports cannot begin with “Boris Johnson, a proven liar” without being accused of political bias. So we must note the moments when the lies become clear, and it is fitting that the lies began in his first official statement.

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Philip Coggan

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