Boris Johnson’s shaky relationship with the truth flowed through almost everything he did. It characterized much of his career, from his college days at the elite Eton school for boys all the way to 10 Downing Street.
Peddling long-held myths about immigration and European meddling paved the way for him to become prime minister of the U.K. and take the country out of the European Union, while “Partygate” cemented Johnson’s aura as a leader who plays fast and loose with facts and rules.
On Thursday, after a tumultuous 48 hours and a string of resignations from his government, the British prime minister laid out plans for his own departure.
“In politics,” he told reporters and staff assembled outside his official residence in London, “no one is remotely indispensable.”
Ultimately, though, it wasn’t Johnson’s own mistruths that brought him down after three years as Conservative leader. It was his insistence that others lie — sometimes unknowingly — on his behalf.
Sajid Javid, Johnson’s health secretary until Tuesday evening, made his annoyances on this point clear in a speech in the House of Commons.
“This week again, we have had reason to question the truth and integrity of what we’ve all been told,” Javid told MPs. “At some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough.”
‘A jocular, self-serving approach’
Javid pointed to “Partygate,” the scandal involving boozy gatherings during COVID-19 lockdowns that led Johnson to become the first sitting British prime minister to be sanctioned by police. Javid said Johnson’s team had assured him no rules had been broken, when they very much had.
After Javid’s resignation, more than 50 other ministers and aides followed him out the door in protest of the prime minister.
Outgoing justice minister Victoria Atkins wrote, “I can no longer pirouette around our fractured values.” Jo Churchill, who served as environment minister, added that “a jocular, self-serving approach” to the role of prime minister “is bound to have its limitations.”
It’s not like there hadn’t been red flags.
25:31Boris Johnson’s ‘partygate’ scandal
Consider this warning from 40 years ago: “Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticized for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility.”
That’s what Martin Hammond, who taught literature at Eton College, wrote in a letter to Johnson’s father, Stanley, in 1982. The now-famous note was reprinted in a 2012 biography by Andrew Gimson when Johnson was mayor of London.
As a sign of things to come, Hammond added, “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies.”
Former prime minister David Cameron crossed paths with Johnson, first at Eton, then again at the University of Oxford. A Daily Mail front page this week reminded Britons how Cameron came to view his would-be Tory colleague: as a “greased piglet.”
Johnson “manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail,” Cameron said in 2019.
Lying led to his downfall
Johnson’s most recent scandal, however, signalled the death of his premiership. And again, it involved his trouble with the truth.
After sexual misconduct allegations surfaced last week about Conservative MP Chris Pincher, Downing Street initially denied Johnson had any knowledge of previous complaints when he promoted Pincher to the role of deputy chief whip.
Eventually, Johnson’s spokesperson was forced to acknowledge the prime minister had in fact been personally informed of some claims before Pincher’s promotion.
“Very clear evidence that this week No. 10 has been hiding the truth, if not outright lying, I think, is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Anand Menon, a professor of politics at King’s College London, told CBC News.
Johnson’s approach didn’t only run roughshod with facts. It sometimes proved hurtful.
In his resignation letter yesterday, equalities minister Mike Freer said Johnson’s government created “an atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people.”
Earlier this year, Johnson was accused of disrespecting families of sex abuse victims by repeating an unsubstantiated claim involving opposition leader Keir Starmer and notorious child predator Jimmy Savile.
Misleading on Brexit
Johnson led the campaign in 2016 for the U.K. to quit the EU, a project largely based on Britons’ desire to greater limit immigration. Johnson famously rode around the country in a red Brexit bus emblazoned with bold white letters claiming Britain could choose to fund its National Health Service instead of “[sending] the EU 350 million pounds a week” (or more than $700 million Cdn at the time).
The U.K. Statistics Authority labelled the figure “a clear misuse of official statistics.”
Johnson’s two predecessors, Cameron and Theresa May, both saw their tenures as prime minister collapse because of Brexit. The EU divorce then served as a springboard for Johnson to leap into No. 10.
His resignation speech on Thursday came with no apology and little sign of contrition. Instead, Johnson described the Tory push for a change in leadership as “eccentric.”
The tone might not have come as a surprise to Johnson’s old teacher, Martin Hammond.
“I think,” Hammond wrote in that letter in 1982, “he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
Thomas Daigle reported extensively on Brexit and the tumult in the British Conservative Party while based in CBC’s London bureau from 2016 to 2019.