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The Conservatives Face their January 6 Moment

Boris Johnson’s full embrace of Trumpian tactics poses a fundamental dilemma for his party – and for British democracy, says Jonathan Lis

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in New York in 2017. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

The Conservatives Face their January 6 Moment

Boris Johnson’s full embrace of Trumpian tactics poses a fundamental dilemma for his party – and for British democracy, says Jonathan Lis

In Washington, one date now serves as shorthand for a political turning point: 6 January 2021. The words ‘January 6’ embody five years of the increasing debasement of American culture and its climactic reckoning – the day a sitting US president attempted a coup and incited violent insurrection against the Capitol.

An inquiry is now attempting to piece together exactly what happened and the scale of Donald Trump’s involvement.

Britain’s answer to American drama is seldom as blunt or spectacular as the original. There has not been a violent incursion into our Parliament for centuries, and not even Boris Johnson would actively license one.

And yet, the spectre of a different kind of January 6 looms large here: the moment of judgement for a Conservative Party which, like its Republican counterparts, has now sacrificed its decency to appease a single man.

Routine Lies

The first and most crucial element is Boris Johnson’s dishonesty. This is a man who lies about everything and takes responsibility for nothing.

In the past few weeks, he has told repeated falsehoods in Parliament – as he has throughout his political career.

One example was his statement that crime had fallen by 14% during the past two years. In fact, it had risen by 14% – Johnson had simply cut out fraud and computer misuse from the official figures, earning a rebuke from the head of the UK Statistics Authority.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng justified and exacerbated the insult by downplaying fraud, suggesting that it was not a “crime that people experience in their day to day lives”. As with the Republicans, Conservative politicians must debase themselves in order to defend their leader.

Then there is Johnson’s repeated claim in Parliament that the UK is enjoying the fastest economic growth in the G7. This is factually correct when considering the last 12 months – but growth was much slower in the most recent quarters. FullFact points out that, since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK has actually seen the second-worst growth in the G7.

Johnson has also misled Parliament on job figures. On at least six occasions since November, he has claimed that there are more people in work now than before the COVID-19 crisis. That refers only to the payroll numbers, not overall employment – and earned another rebuke from the Office for Statistics Regulation. The Office for National Statistics estimates that there are in fact 600,000 fewer people in work now than directly before the pandemic.

The trouble is that this is nothing new – with Johnson, such lies are ‘priced in’. In previous times, ministers who misled Parliament would have been expected to correct the record or, indeed, resign. But, because nobody expects the Prime Minister to tell the truth, his party has remained unfazed by them.

What has changed since November is not the quality of Johnson’s lies but the public’s response to them.

The Owen Paterson affair alienated many moderate Conservative MPs and offered concrete evidence that Johnson’s corruption involved throwing them under the bus – but really it proved so damaging by repelling voters (and headline writers). The ongoing scandal of the Downing Street lockdown parties has deeply compounded the offence. It is unlikely that MPs would have made such a fuss if it had not caught the attention of the public – but now it has, they cannot escape it.

Big Lies

‘Partygate’ was a big lie not only because it angered so many people or because it led to so many smaller lies, but because it depended on a fundamental corruption: that the person who set in motion the most draconian peacetime laws in modern history did not feel the slightest obligation to follow them. It shared with January 6 one key tenet: the entitlement and abuse of power.

This is, of course, not just about simple lying – it is political gaslighting: lying to voters’ faces, rewriting the facts of a past everyone has just lived through, denying things have happened that people have literally witnessed.

Partygate began with repeated assurances from the Prime Minister that all guidance had been followed at all times. Then, after the video leaked of Allegra Stratton laughing in a mock press briefing about a party, he professed shock that people around him might have broken rules. It subsequently transpired that he had attended at least four illegal gatherings himself. Now reports claim that he is using the defence of believing he was at work or only popping in to the party in his flat for 10 minutes.

Consider the consequences in April and May 2020 for the most minor breaches of regulations.

A leading scientific advisor, Neil Ferguson, had to resign for meeting his partner. A Labour whip, Rosie Duffield, had to resign for taking a walk with someone. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood had to resign for visiting her second home. (Johnson, incidentally, did the same thing at the same time).

Now, there is a serious conversation about the Prime Minister being fined for attending busy parties by the Metropolitan Police – and staying in office.

This is not simply Johnson himself shifting the goal-posts, but the enablers around him. With each new offence, they have raised the bar for his removal – and, of course, lowered it for standards in public life.

As with Trump, each successive outrage establishes a new precedent, which both weakens and consolidates his power. Voters get steadily more angry, but also more tired. As the behaviour gets more routine, it also becomes less shocking: Johnson’s goal is to make lies the accepted truth and bad behaviour the norm.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries gave the game away when questioned what, if anything, would cost Johnson her support. Her reply – “if he went out and kicked a dog” – echoed Trump’s famous boast about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing any votes.

For a significant number of senior politicians, Johnson must be kept in power at any price. They come up with any number of excuses – that he has a ‘personal mandate’ or ‘got Brexit done’ or deserves Conservative MPs’ support for winning them their seats. Really it is corruption at its most fundamental: the privileging of one man above a political system.

Dangerous Lies

Of course, Trumpification also demands smears so personal and obscene that they have the capacity to incite violence. Their purpose is to make people discuss the lie and thus associate it with the target, while the person who began the smear distances themselves from the consequences.

The Prime Minister has form on this. In 2019, his repeated references to the “Surrender Act” saw numerous Labour MPs subjected to death threats, which he notoriously dismissed as “humbug” in Parliament. In recent weeks, the smear has been directed at Labour Leader Keir Starmer – that as Director of Public Prosecutions he declined to prosecute the paedophile Jimmy Savile.

Johnson knew that it was a smear, knew that it would distract attention from Partygate, and knew that parliamentary privilege would protect him from litigation – which is why he has not repeated the same wording since. Despite toning down his rhetoric on the subject, he has not apologised and has smirked as he has declined to comment. Meanwhile, Starmer has faced physical threats from a mob while walking in Westminster and had to be saved by the police.

Trump’s tactics are characterised by someone doubling-down instead of apologising. It is based around the idea that what matters is not the truth but the conversation.

According to a recent Opinium poll, 28% of voters surveyed said they believe the Savile smear to be true, including 45% of 2019 Conservative voters. A significant minority instinctively believe what a Prime Minister tells them – even one as dishonest as Johnson.

If the words and authority of the nation’s leader carry no weight, whose will?  

Slow Decay of the Conservatives

Boris Johnson’s essential tactic is simple: to tell big lies, inconsequential lies, to lie all the time and thus lie with impunity. He tells so many new lies that it becomes impossible for journalists to report them in depth or to hold him to account for telling them.

Crucially, it forces the media into a key dilemma: either ignore the fact that the Prime Minister is telling outright lies, or report them and find itself inadvertently legitimising them. But, of course, it is worse than that.

The Prime Minister has embedded his own habitual dishonesty within his party’s; the two have become entirely conflated. His lies are now the Conservatives’ too. Like the Republicans, the two may take a generation or more to disaggregate.

Why do the Conservatives do it? As with Trump and the Republicans, Johnson does not love them or even like them. He will not hesitate to destroy them both personally and politically. Like Trump, he is in this only for himself. The fetishisation of one man has made political parties that once defined themselves on patriotism entirely subjugated to ego.

This hyper-loyalty is not based on self-respect but the need to placate supporters, a belief in its electoral necessity, and ultimately fear. And yet there is one silver lining: while Trump still retains his grip, Johnson may be losing his. Grassroots Republicans still believe that the 2020 US Presidential Election was stolen; grassroots Conservatives will not wave away Johnson’s contempt for his own lockdown laws.  

But there are still no guarantees that the Conservatives will finally confront reality. Many appear determined to back Johnson whatever happens; others will privately recoil and still shirk the responsibility for removing him.

Right now in Britain there is no January 6-style insurrection, but a piecemeal corrosion of standards, ethics and obligations which in the end amounts to something similar. Thus, after years of degrading themselves for a narcissistic demagogue who won’t change, the time has come for Johnson’s backers to make a choice: they must finally decide to take a stand or drag themselves into the sewer with him.

It’s time for the Conservatives to declare who they really are.

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