The Assault on Truth by Peter Oborne is a short rant, sometimes repetitive, but mercilous and meticulously researched with references to justify its ethical message: Johnson is corrupt and the media has colluded with him. That Johnson has more than a passing similarity with Trump in his pursuit of power at any price and his (past) conspirators like Cummings helped him in his mission.
Peter Oborne admits he effectively lost his job and successful career in defence of his own stand point. His own moral compass is one of traditional, pre-Thatcherite conservatism which he argues Johnson has trampled over. He firstly sets out how lying in parliament is understandably contemptible and the price is resignation. He then paints a picture of Johnson as having a history of lying that cost him two jobs, going back to Eton, combined with a dubious ethical outlook that justifies his behaviour.
All the lies that Peter Oborne exhibits as evidence are out there in the public domain: 40 new hospitals when it was actually six; 20,000 new police officers when in fact there will no net gain. Then there are the attacks that are pure fabrication: £1.2 trillion Labour manifesto that had not even been published. His attacks on Corbyn during the election were vicious – the reference to “Kulaks” was unacceptable and went unchallenged. Then there were lies about Brexit and the trade barriers with Northern Ireland. But all these were not casual cover ups. Oborne points the finger at the Conservative Research Department with its campaign brief of false claims. Finally, there are the lies during the COVID pandemic about successful we are and going to be when we were not. Britain has made a string of mistakes (care homes) yet this Government is too narcissistic and vein to be honest to the public about them.
It is the shamelessness and systematic way that Johnson goes about his lying that provoked Peter Obrone to write this book. The book does not cover competency in power or in statecraft. The point is how Boris has used lies and untruths in pursuit of his hold on that power. Why the media (he gives examples of the BBC and Sky News) has not sought to challenge Johnson is never fully explained despite being a huge part of the problem.
The allegation about the use of lies to gain power are in plain sight – the string of untruths about his boasts about the NHS are shocking. Oborne goes so far as to say that Johnson has taken over the Conservative party from what it traditionally was. This has strong parallels with how Trump gained control of the Republican party but, to me, Boris is “Trump Light.”]
Oborne touches lightly on the Johnson/Cummings attack on the Civil Service. Change is one thing the Civil Service urgently needs but, under this cover, Johnson removed high level staff, in the same way he undermined ministers (Hammond), undermining the integrity of our institutions – the ‘public domain’ – in pursuit of creating an apparatus the pushes through decisions using political advisors, without robust testing. This is now manifesting itself with cronyism as seen by contracts during the pandemic going to friends of the Tory Party.
What shocked me internally is, as Peter Oborne points out, that whilst the media had their targets – Corbyn and Remainers – that they attacked remorselessly, they had little interest in firstly unpicking Johnson’s lies, and secondly a lack of journalist instinct to check that some of the attacks that came out of Johnson’s office were actually untrue. Previous examples of abuse of power – Arms to Iraq – led to the Nolan inquiry to correct wrongs. Oborne also uses the example of Blair and Labour of a party and leader who were believed lying was a necessary prop to power as their mission was virtuous. But Oborne argues Johnson lacks such an ideology – however the chapter describing his career doesn’t get underneath Johnson’s ideological leanings. The suggestion is Johnson used his brilliant gonzo journalism skills to good effect in his political rise to power.
The evidence stacks up so why has Johnson been given a free ride? Oborne is well placed to reflect on the populist success of Johnson but gives little room for analysis of the reasons beyond his personality. The fact is British political was in a difficult place with Brexit and the May administration. The nation was, and still is, divided in so many respects that Johnson has sought to repair with levelling up beyond the red wall. The sense that he has a partisan press and a voter base prepared to look the other way to pull the nation out its psychotic state is there but missing in the book. With the COVID pandemic and the cost of it, stagnant economy and the need to deliver on levelling up there are questions about how long the public and press will continue to tolerate Johnson riding roughshod over acceptable behaviour.