Thursday, November 05, 2020

"The most accomplished liar in public life": Rory Stewart on Boris Johnson

Rory Stewart does not so much review Tom Bower's biography of Boris Johnson for the TLS as brush the book aside to get at its subject himself.

After paying sincere and generous tribute to qualities in Johnson that may have eluded outside observers, he strikes:

Johnson is after all the most accomplished liar in public life - perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister. Some of this may have been a natural talent – but a lifetime of practice and study has allowed him to uncover new possibilities which go well beyond all the classifications of dishonesty attempted by classical theorists like St Augustine. 

He has mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial. He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy. He is equally adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth; the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie, and the bullshit lie – which may inadvertently be true.

As Stewart goes on to say, many politicians have had been adept liars, but they have used this ability in pursuit of what they see as the greater good.

The unique thing about Johnson is that he appears to have no political beliefs at all. Stewart describes his experience of working for him at the foreign office:

He demanded, for example, to know why we were not doing more for "charismatic megafauna", but when I came back with a £9 million programme to work with the German development agency on elephant protection in Zambia, he simply laughed and said “Germans? Nein. Nein …". 

He said, "Rory: Libya. Libya is a bite-sized British problem. Let’s sort out Libya", but when I proposed a budget, and some ideas on how we might work with the UN and the Italians in the West of Libya, he switched off immediately. 

"Cultural heritage", he told me, "is literally the only thing I care about in the world", but again I could not get him to support a fund on cultural heritage.

He adds that even when Johnson does take action the results seem not to be what he intended. As mayor of London,

having campaigned against skyscrapers, for example, and in favour of emulating the architecture of Periclean Athens, he left a legacy of some of the most ill-considered, inhuman towers in London (Nine Elms in Vauxhall being a dramatic example).

So why does he do it? Why is he in politics at all? For the shits and giggles? For the glory? To get level with his fellow Bullingdon boy David Cameron?

No one know, but having brought nothing of values into it, Johnson may be discovering in politics the truth about show business once expressed by Chris Evans.

When you get to the top, you find there's nothing there.

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