Transfixed Americans, watching from afar, are perhaps nonplussed by events in London. There, Her Majesty’s first minister is, as this is written, in danger of losing his lease on 10 Downing Street because he lied. Astonishing.
He has never disguised his belief that in any situation, truthfulness is merely one option among many, and not to be preferred over more advantageous or just more entertaining choices. As Winston Churchill said of another politician (evidently Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin), he “occasionally had stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”
With his carefully tousled hair that looks as though his barber used pruning shears, his shambolic manner of an unmade bed walking, and his louche lifestyle, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — Eton; Balliol College, Oxford University — brings to mind Dolly Parton’s quip “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.” A lot of thought seems to have gone into Johnson’s self-presentation as someone indifferent to appearances — a toff but with scuffed shoes familiar with the grass roots. An instinctive populist, he has mastered what Alexander Hamilton deplored (in Federalist 68) as “the little arts of popularity.”
Johnson’s immediate predicament is pandemic-related. Parties occurred in his residence, which includes his office, and in the basement, and the garden, while the British people were enduring severe lockdowns — and stern scoldings, prosecutions and fines for evading them.
Indignation has ensued, to which Johnson’s rainbow of responses has included: There were no parties (although invitees were told to “bring your own booze”). There were parties but he did not know about them. He did not know that any he attended qualified as parties. Of one perhaps party he said: “Those people were at work talking about work.” Of another, he “believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
Sixty years ago, during the Profumo scandal (a secretary of state for war lied in the House of Commons about an affair with a young woman), this doggerel was popular: “To lie in the nude / May be terribly rude / But to lie in the House is obscene.”
The Economist calls Johnson “possibly the biggest cynic ever to become prime minister.” He was fired from a prominent job in journalism for inventing a quote. A former conservative leader fired him from a government position for lying. His ascent to Downing Street was propelled by his campaigning for Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union. He brandished a smoked kipper, ridiculing the European Union for the regulation requiring such fish to be shipped on ice pillows — a regulation written by the British government. He warned, preposterously, that Turkey would soon join the European Union. He promised that leaving the European Union would free 350 million pounds ($480 million) a week for the National Health Service, a factoid plucked from the same ether where Trump got his promise to eliminate the U.S. national debt in eight years.
Writing in the Financial Times, Rory Stewart, a former Conservative cabinet minister now teaching at Yale University, says Johnson “is a terrible prime minister and a worse human being. But he is not a monster newly sprung from a rent between this world and the next.” A majority of Conservative MPs voted to make him prime minister after “thirty years of celebrity made him famous for his mendacity, indifference to detail, poor administration, and inveterate betrayal of every personal commitment.” This, Stewart says, is because British culture “remains trapped by the idea that politics is a game.”
Mortification loves company, so Americans might take comfort from the fact that their British cousins managed to produce a head of government as shambolic and careless as a recent and perhaps future president. There is, however, a deflating difference.
Simon Kuper notes in the Financial Times that Johnson’s net favorability rating collapsed from +29 percent in April 2020 to -52 percent in January 2022. “Here, in microcosm,” Kuper writes, “is the uniqueness of American polarisation”: Those who favor Trump are bound to him as with hoops of steel, come what may. This total indifference to evidence is today’s “American exceptionalism.”