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Sun 16 June 2019
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With Boris Johnson emerging as a clear candidate to succeed Theresa May as Conservative leader and to enter Number 10 Downing Street as Britain’s next Prime Minister, it’s time to think the unthinkable and speak of the unspeakable – the emergence of another Donald Trump populist in one of the world’s major democracies.

Those who doubt Johnson’s indebtedness to the US President only need to look to Trump’s statement during his state visit two weeks ago: he said Johnson would make a “very good” PM. This is not a new thought. Trump’s campaign manager Steve Bannon, who has been advising Johnson for over two years, said the same thing in the summer of 2018.

And then there’s the Trumpism.

Having dropped the pose of One-Nation Tory he donned as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has been using the classic Trump tropes of provoke, deny, deflect on his journey to succeed his Eton College and Bullingdon Club rival David Cameron as leader of the country.

His journalistic and political career – as explained in these pages by Otto English – has been built on a rising mound of lies and broken promises. Apart from his ambition, the only consistent strand is his willingness to make pejorative remarks about people of colour, women, or the LGBT community.

All this was on display at the launch of his leadership bid this week as Johnson failed to answer six simple questions from journalists. Instead, he belittled the female journalists, and lapped up roars of male applause about his “letterbox” jibes about Muslim women.

We now appear to live in a Britain in which an elected representative comparing Muslim women wearing the Burka to “letterboxes” is not an exercise in overt racism, but apparently an example of the public wanting politicians to “speak directly”.

The change in Britain’s cultural values of tolerance, openness and behaving honourably is being accelerated at breakneck speed. Not since Enoch Powell was disavowed by the political establishment over 50 years ago after his ‘rivers of blood’ speech has bigotry been allowed a leadership role.


From HBO’s Chernobyl

So what of journalism in the age of Johnsonian Trumpism?

We’ve seen the effects over the Atlantic where independent journalists who question Trump are the main focus of his Twitter attacks. They are threatened by Trump supporters at rallies. They’re denied access to press briefings. In this information warfare, mockery soon leads to censorship or intimidation.

Trump doesn’t need to answer their questions or have any detailed policies for them to scrutinise. His supporters believe him when declares journalists to be “enemies of the people”.

Johnson might appear more liberal. After all, after being sacked from The Times for lying, he was Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph for several years (years spent mainly concocting wild fictions about the EU), then editor of the Spectator, and now a Telegraph columnist paid £250,000 a year. You might think he would do more to protect proper reporting and a press that holds power to account.

Think again. Johnson did nothing to stop a friend planning to beat up a News of the World reporter early in his career. Since then, Johnson has only worked for that small cartel of billionaire press owners in the UK, most domiciled overseas for tax purposes, who are an unaccountable power in this land, like nothing in the US. He is a more skilled manipulator of the press than Trump is.

And, although Johnson hasn’t yet resorted to likening journalists to fake news-writing foes, his refusal to directly answer any of the questions posed to him by the press pack at his launch, shows his will be a campaign of few words, but bluster aplenty. Lots of ‘telling it like it is’ and jokes about minestrone soup – straight out of the modern-day populism playbook, the dedication for which must surely go to the current President.

In the utterly gripping HBO series ‘Chernobyl’, Valery Legasov, the scientist who exposed the Soviet Union’s cover-up of the causes and scale of the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion, is depicted as slowly suffocating under the weight of lies engulfing his society.  

“Our secrets and our lies… they’re practically what defines us,” he says. “When the truth offends, we lie and we lie till we can no longer remember that the truth is still there.

“But it is still there.”

It is a sentiment imperative to remember in the days and weeks ahead. Only truth will navigate us through the quagmire of our current politics.

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