Strategy of Lies

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version article was published in Ceylon Today on May 10, 2021.

He wiffles and he waffles; he piffles and he paffles. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson seems incapable of giving a straight answer. Every week at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, Boris bats away the questions of the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, with a mélange of bluster and irrelevance and whataboutery. At PMQs on 28 April 2021, Johnson seemed to lose it completely as Starmer brought his forensic skills as a former Director of Public Prosecutions to the chamber. Johnson ranted and avoided answering the well-honed questions put to him.

Andrew Rawnsley in the London Observer wrote: “Those familiar with his pathology will know that he often dials up the bluster when he has something to hide. The worse the misconduct he is trying to conceal, the rantier he tends to get. He was very ranty indeed at the most recent prime minister’s questions.” Johnson has long played the buffoon and has often been mistaken for a Wodehousian silly ass. Johnson is Ukridge rather than Wooster. Ukridge is quick to blame his friends for his failures. Ukridge gets really angry when his friend refuses to injure himself for what Ukridge describes as the common good. Ukridge usually sees himself as the victim when his plans inevitably implode and blames fate or his friends – “It’s a bit hard…!” is a phrase that recurs often. Johnson’s fake buffoonery causes real distress to millions of real people. Ukridge is fiction. Johnson is ugly fact.

Here is Starmer’s first question, as recorded in Hansard. “It was reported this week, including in the Daily Mail and by the BBC and ITV, backed up by numerous sources, that at the end of October the Prime Minister said he would rather have ‘bodies pile high’ than implement another lockdown. Can the Prime Minister tell the House categorically, yes or no: did he make those remarks or remarks to that effect?”

Of course, we did not get a “yes” or a “no”. Starmer’s response was chilling: “I remind him that the ministerial code says: ‘Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation’. I will leave it there for now. There will be further on this, believe you me.”

Starmer followed up with another wounding thrust. “Who initially —and ‘initially’ is the key word here—paid for the redecoration of his Downing Street flat?” Johnson responded with a flurry of whataboutery, to which Starmer replied, “Normally when people do not want to incriminate themselves, they go, ‘No comment.’” Starmer followed up thus: “Either the taxpayer paid the initial invoice, or it was the Conservative party, or it was a private donor, or it was the Prime Minister. I am making it easy for the Prime Minister—it is now multiple choice. There are only four options. I ask him again: who paid the initial invoice—the initial invoice, Prime Minister—for the redecoration of the Prime Minister’s flat?”

There are now no fewer than three inquiries into how the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat was funded. “Cash for cushions” and “wallpapergate” are terms being bandied about.

I have been watching PMQs for a long time and I am able to discern the techniques that Johnson uses. He employs the same tricks when he appears before the select liaison committee. He never answers the question, which forces the questioner to keep repeating the question. Johnson then feigns frustration at the repetition and says something like, “I have already answered that question numerous times”. What he really means is that the question has been asked numerous times and he has avoided answering it numerous times.

Another trick is to hurl questions at Keir Starmer and berate him for not answering them. Starmer has drily pointed out that this is prime minister’s questions not leader of the opposition’s questions but if he wants to change places, he would be happy to do so. The speaker of the House, Lyndsey Hoyle, occasionally makes the same point but generally lets Johnson get away with his tricks.

There was a good example on April 28, when Ian Blackford, Westminster leader of the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party), speaking from his own home surrounded by DVDs and books, launched this missile. “Parliamentary rules stop me saying that the Prime Minister has repeatedly lied to the public over the last week, but may I ask the question: are you a liar, Prime Minister?” There was a stunned silence in the House. The speaker fidgeted uncomfortably and mumbled something about what Blackford had said not being out of order but being “unsavoury”.  Blackford’s question called for a yes or no answer. Johnson could not say yes, he was a liar. If he said, “No, I am not a liar” everybody would know he was lying and therefore a liar.

Johnson’s crimes are manifold. While Johnson was spending an estimated £200,000 on home decor, his government was pushing through a post-Grenfell fire safety bill that threatens ordinary leaseholders with financial ruin, saddling them with the cost of ridding their homes of potentially lethal cladding and other hazards.

As mayor of London, he wasted money on failed vanity projects and gave £126,000 of public money to his lover, Jennifer Arcuri, to whom the mayor gave a fast track to the taxpayer’s pocket. As prime minister he facilitated a VIP lane for ministers’ chums to make a profit out of the pandemic. There was a £276m contract that went to P14 Medical, run by a Tory donor, and the £160m deal with Meller Designs, also run by a Tory donor. Cronies like Dido Harding got the benefit of £37bn committed to a test-and-trace programme that never worked.

Strategic lying is a technique where a politician tells a deliberate lie with the purpose of shifting the news agenda onto his or hers preferred territory. Rebuttals are part of the plan because they result in the subject of the lie being amplified and kept on the news agenda.

The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. However, he was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force.

Once a lie finds a sympathetic ear, rebuttals, facts, will not persuade people that it is not true. To believe anything else would create a sense of cognitive dissonance. Memories of corrections fade rapidly, but the memory of the original lie remains. Goebbels had something to say on this subject. Media scholar Caroline Jack coined the phrase “unintentional amplification”, which in turn leads to another phenomenon which she identifies as “inadvertent legitimisation” – the act of giving credibility to “strategic lies” simply by repeating them.

Nick Cohen wrote in the London Observer: “Boris Johnson has a sense of entitlement where a sense of morality should be. Put a man like that in charge of a well-governed country and anti-corruption investigations follow. Put him in charge of this country and, instead of detectives with warrants, we have chums looking at chums, morally compromised arbiters and intimidated watchdogs.”

Philosopher Bernard Williams coined the term “Government House utilitarianism” to describe the moral philosophy underlying the practice of the British Empire that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use. In Truth and Truthfulness, his last published book, Williams focuses on what he identifies as the “virtues” of truthfulness, Accuracy and Sincerity. We can’t get along without trust (human flourishing creates a “need for cooperation” (b) but trust requires truthfulness, and (c) truthfulness presupposes that there are (at least some) truths. For Williams lies are pernicious for at least two reasons: (1) the liar betrays the trust of the dupe; and (2) the liar exerts power over the dupe, manipulating his or her beliefs and thus (potentially) his or her choices.

The results of recent elections indicate that the British people are happy to be dupes.