Monday, May 03, 2021

Unparliamentary Language

Erskine May, 1st Baron Farnborough, KCB, Under Clerk of the Parliaments from 1871 to 1886. Via Wikipedia.

Lovely buried lede in this Guardian story about Prime Minister Boris Johnson's inveterate lying, which is becoming increasingly hard for Britain to live with:

On Tuesday an exasperated cross-party group of MPs went to see [Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay] Hoyle. Their message: the parliamentary protocols drawn up in Victorian times no longer work. “We need new rules for this Trumpian era of British politics,” Green MP Caroline Lucas told the Radio 4 Today programme. The MPs want to be able to call him out – and the charge sheet against him is long.

Under the ministerial code, an MP who makes a false statement to the Commons is supposed to correct the record. Johnson has repeatedly ignored this obligation, making a litany of inaccurate claims which he subsequently fails to fix. Seemingly, Erskine May, the sideburned baron who established parliamentary procedure, did not envisage a PM like Johnson.

Basically, they're asking permission to use unparliamentary language and call Johnson a liar, preferably to his face at Question Time.

“I can’t possibly call the PM a liar in this house,” [SNP House leader Ian] Blackford said, beaming in remotely from Scotland. “But … are you a liar, prime minister?”

There was an awkward silence. It was as if Johnson – facing off at the dispatch box against the Labour leader, Keir Starmer – was genuinely mulling an answer.

Johnson is really an extraordinary liar, and has been one from the beginning of his first career as a journalist, when he was fired from The Times of London over a fabricated quote attributed to his own godfather, the historian Colin Lucas, in a front-page piece on the discovery of the Rose Palace of the sodomitical king Edward II.

“The trouble was that somewhere in my copy I managed to attribute to Colin the view that Edward II and Piers Gaveston would have been cavorting together in the Rose Palace,” he claimed.

Alas, Gaveston was executed 13 years before the palace was built. “It was very nasty,” Mr Johnson added, before attempting to downplay it as nothing more than a schoolboy blunder.

More significant were the falsehoods about the European Union he used to send his next employer, The Daily Telegraph, as their Brussels correspondent from 1989 to 1994:

His articles, like those in several other Eurosceptic newspapers, contained many of the claims widely described as “Euromyths”, including plans to introduce same-size “eurocoffins”, establish a “banana police force” to regulate the shape of the curved yellow fruit, and ban prawn cocktail crisps.

When questioned about them in parliament, he denied suggestions they were a figment of his imagination.

“There is a great deal of effort being made to deprecate those who think we should leave the EU and everything we say is somehow mythical”, he replied.

That doubling down in the face of the evidence that he was lying is pretty Trumpy, in spite of the fustian Oxford diction, and it had a real effect, 30 years later, in creating the anti-Europe culture in Britain that propelled him through Brexit, with the ridiculous claim that leaving the EU would save Britain £350 million per week that the country was sending to Brussels and could be applied to funding the National Health Service. Lying about their devotion to the beloved NHS has been a Conservative specialty for a long time, of course:

 “Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words: education, education, education,” David Cameron said in 2006, during his first Conservative Party conference as leader. “I can do it in three letters: NHS.” Despite a long-running record of duplicity – in the 2010 election, for example, Cameron campaigned to “cut the deficit, not the NHS,” then oversaw the biggest reduction in its funding in real terms ever – the strategy has worked. On most polling, Labour are now no more trusted on health than the Conservatives: the NHS is no longer Labour’s home turf.... 

Johnson’s “NHS” is a divine, giving thing that can be “overwhelmed” but never “underprepared”. To bring up the 10 years of Conservative austerity – leaving a record shortage of nurses, a record shortage of beds and an exhausted, underpaid staff in its wake – is deemed unpatriotic, even blasphemous. In fact, at the same time as the Conservative government extols the virtues of the NHS, staff themselves are banned from/threatened against sharing negative stories with the press or on social media.

Johnson's time in Brussels was, by the way (I've mentioned it before) around the same time as David F. Brooks was in Brussels as the young EU correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, and I like to think of Brooks as part of the crowd fawning on Johnson, no doubt at Churchills, imbibing the lesson of how to make shit up for political advantage with a wry, self-deprecating charm; Boris Johnson could be the godfather of the Applebees Salad Bar.

Churchill's English Pub, Brussels, via Trip Advisor.

This week the issue is Johnson's denial that he said something he obviously did say, on his way to overseeing the criminally neglectful response to the Covid-19 pandemic

Faced with fury from relatives of the bereaved, Johnson and senior ministers emphatically denied he said “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands” after reluctantly approving a second England-wide lockdown late last year.

The claim followed a briefing war at the weekend between Johnson and his former chief aide Dominic Cummings, who resigned from Downing Street after what was believed to be a power struggle with the prime minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds. The government is also facing growing calls for a public inquiry into a pandemic that left the UK with one of the worst death tolls among major economies last year.

Given that the bodies are in fact piled pretty high. Johnson and his "fiancée" are also implicated in a Trumpy grift scandal over the wallpaper (among other things) at 10 Downing Street:

Boris Johnson has spent an estimated £200,000 renovating the flat above No 11 Downing Street where he lives with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, and their baby son, Wilfred. Reports suggest they wanted to replace Theresa May’s “John Lewis nightmare” with the upmarket designs of Lulu Lytle, known as “the saviour of British rattan”.

Staff at the commission, which oversees political expenditure, are examining claims that Conservative party funds initially paid for the renovations, that the party may have loaned Johnson the money, and that cash was handed over by Tory donors including David Brownlow to pay for the work and set up a trust through which money could be funnelled.

According to allegations from his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, another unspeakable piece of work, said to have left the job after losing a battle with Ms. Symonds over which of them gets to tell Johnson what to do, but he claims he has evidence to back him up.

The other Trumpy thing, unfortunately, is that Johnson's and inveterate dishonesty doesn't do him or his party any harm, partly because the opposition Labour Party is at this point such a mess

A week ahead of the crucial 6 May elections to local authorities and devolved assemblies, the BMG poll put Conservatives on 39 per cent to Labour’s 35, extending the Tory lead from two to four points compared to a similar survey in March.

Mr Johnson himself also saw his personal satisfaction ratings improve, and was picked as preferred prime minister over Sir Keir Starmer by a margin of 40 per cent to 24 per cent, compared to 35-28 in March.

Johnson's deceit, suggests The Guardian, is

“priced in”. The public has accepted he plays fast with the facts, and yet support him anyway – look at the 2019 general election, when he won a big majority, and the 2016 EU referendum. He is an entertainer, rather than a norm-bound politician, the argument goes, a soap opera character who exists in a half-real, half-fictional realm.

Johnson’s wayward claims do not disqualify him from high office, his admirers say. Instead, they are received as proof of his sincerity, even if they are not quite accurate.

So if you're gloomy about being a Democrat, I'm saying, it could be a lot worse.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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