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Boris Johnson: What is the PM’s relationship with the truth?

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Photo: Shutterstock

Laura Kuenssberg

2 May

The truth matters, doesn’t it?

In what’s meant to be a grown-up Western democracy surely we’d all like to think so. It doesn’t pay to be naïve. Politicians, even really honest ones, regularly say things they don’t quite believe.

The public knows this. We don’t expect our politicians to be angels. But outright lying, in my experience, is relatively rare. It is too easily found out.

Only one senior politician still in the game has ever privately told me something that was utterly, entirely, and completely untrue. It was proved publicly to be a lie a few days later.

It’s also rare for opposition parties to accuse a prime minister, on the record, of lying.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson.

The prime minister’s relationship with the truth is under intense scrutiny at the moment. He is refusing to give full explanations on some issues. There are questions about how the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat was initially funded, and about incendiary comments he made last autumn as England was about to enter a second lockdown.

Downing Street is repeatedly denying that he has done anything wrong.

It is not the first time in Boris Johnson’s long career that he has faced questions about his conduct and character. But the stakes are so much higher now. His unique way of running things – and sometimes chaotic approach to decision-making – has, sources tell me, led exasperated colleagues in No 10 to nickname him “Trolley”.

Quote card: "The PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships - utterly disposable once inconvenient" - former minister

“You think you are pushing it along a path towards your goal then suddenly it veers off disastrously,” says one insider.

If anyone wanted to submit accurate Freedom of Information requests on government WhatsApp messages, “you’d have to include the trolley emoji”, adds my source. No 10 declined to comment on the name.

It was Mr Johnson himself who may have coined the analogy, telling friends he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley,” over whether to back Leave or Remain, ahead of the Brexit referendum, according to the Sunday Times. He famously wrote two versions of his newspaper column, one backing Leave, the other Remain, arguing through all the options to be completely sure.

Some of his allies cite this desire to argue things backwards and forwards before reaching a decision as a strength, saying: “He challenges organisations and conventional wisdom.”

Others have a more straightforward explanation.

“He is just sometimes unable to face the truth because he doesn’t like making hard decisions,” says one insider. Another says: “You are never sure what the real truth of a situation is.” Others say it is hard to get clarity and a sense of purpose, or that it is “hard to work out where his motives begin and end”.

So what does this tell us about the prime minister’s relationship with the truth?

First, the benign interpretation of how the PM operates. One insider who knows him well says it is simply “unfair and easy to cry ‘liar’, as the opposition has done”.

“He’s far more complex and strategic and people don’t give him credit for how calculating and clever he is.”

Another source told me Mr Johnson has a “genuinely selective memory” and that “‘I choose to remember certain things or not remember others'” is his default way of dealing with the pressures of life at No 10.

For years, it’s been the case that when things get sticky, particularly with Boris Johnson’s personal life or financial affairs, he refuses to engage in those conversations at all, even in private with his close aides. The message to staffers is, effectively: “Don’t ask, because I won’t tell.”

One source told me that is why, right now, life in No 10 is bound to be tense and difficult.

“Part of the problem is that these two things, his personal relationships and his financial situation are colliding. He’ll be finding it very difficult, and people trying to advise him will also find that hard.”

But is he not telling the truth?

This particular source believes that the PM may try to evade questions about matters of the home and heart, but not on political issues.

“To a degree every politician has to go out and say things they don’t always agree with. He is a professional and he does that.”

There’s another layer when it comes to Mr Johnson though. And discussing his habits with many of those who have worked alongside him, his former life as a journalist is often mentioned.

Strategy to bamboozle

Even his worst enemy would acknowledge that he is a skilled wordsmith, and he regularly uses his vast range of sometimes nonsensical vocabulary to deflect, to entertain, or even ridicule. It’s certainly not unusual for politicians to try to avoid answering questions that would cast them or their parties in a less than flattering light.

One of the PM’s strategies, however, seems to be to bamboozle the listener with a blizzard of verbiage, suggesting agreement, but not committing to anything. Former colleagues suggest that by the time they have decoded what he actually meant, the conversation’s over.

An insider told me: “He frequently leaves people with the belief that he has told them one thing, but he has given himself room for manoeuvre,” believing that, “the fewer cast iron positions you hold the better, because you can always change political direction.”

The verbal flourishes and rhetorical tricks are part of the reason why he has prospered.

“A lot of his magic has been those off-the-cuff comments, that’s why a lot of the public like him,” says an ally.

He was like an “untamed political animal” when he first developed his political style says another, playing with phrases as he would in his byzantine and flamboyant newspaper columns, teasing with words, presenting a character like no other politician.

But another told me it has developed into a way of shrouding what’s really going on.

“I think he is an extremely shrewd and calculating character that hides it all under the costume of a performer,” says this source.

One Brexiteer even suggests his mannerisms encourage others to be complicit: “It’s like a comedian, you are willing him on, you want it to be plausible” – even if, according to them, it simply isn’t.

That’s where his personal style, according to others, tips into something much less appealing. A former minister, once close to him, told me: “The problem is that it’s becoming clearer that the PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships – utterly disposable once inconvenient.

“It’s all about power. Facts, policies, people – they all get ditched if they get in the way. Whatever is necessary.”

Like Steve Jobs

Yet what’s suggested time and again is that the prime minister’s attitude to the truth and facts is not based on what is real and what is not, but is driven by what he wants to achieve in that moment – what he desires, rather than what he believes. And there is no question, that approach, coupled with an intense force of personality can be enormously effective.

In his political career, Boris Johnson has time and again overturned the odds, and that’s a huge part of the reason why.

Quote card: "Is there wilful lying? I would struggle to point to a direct example" - former colleague of Boris Johnson

One former colleague compares him to the late Steve Jobs, the hard-driving founder of tech giant Apple. Jobs was said to have a “reality distortion field”, described by his biographer as a “confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand”.

In other words, ordering the truth to suit his ambitions, refusing to take no for an answer, relishing proving that the impossible could be done.

Sound familiar?

Mr Johnson’s former colleague told me: “Is there wilful lying? I would struggle to point to a direct example. Does he recreate the truth to suit him? Yes.”

This source, and several others, told me the prime minister has a “deep dislike of being accused of lying”. Several sources have even suggested that during the 2016 Brexit campaign he was nervous about the now infamous promise, plastered on the side of his battle bus, to spend the £350m a week the UK sends to the EU “to fund the NHS instead”.

Mr Johnson was nervous about the claim plastered across the Vote Leave battle bus, several sources say

Mr Johnson was conscious that every time he used this claim, it could be challenged by the fact that the £350m did not take into account the budget rebate the UK got from the EU.

Mr Johnson was all about “images, emotions, he didn’t want to be pinned down to a number”, says my source.

He was also understood to be unhappy about the campaign’s claims about Turkey’s proposed entry to the EU, and the potential impact on immigration. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need a reminder of how controversial those claims were at the time. Just in case, you can read about them here and here.

But private doubts about whether the claims were convincing did not stop Mr Johnson from becoming the biggest cheerleader for leaving the EU. The rest, of course, is history.

Some of those with him on the Brexit journey don’t think that he was ever a true believer.

A veteran Brexiteer told me: “Boris is not one of us, but we put him there – and that is a truth he is never going to want to confront.”

Big trouble ahead?

Forgetting the recent history, does any of this actually matter politically now? Voters don’t generally consider politicians to be particularly trustworthy.

Boris Johnson’s reputation and popularity is certainly not based on a view that he tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. He has what pollsters call “authenticity” – what you see is what you get. He’s not super smooth and he doesn’t pretend to be perfect.

The current allegations about his conduct, which he characteristically describes as a “farrago of nonsense” do not seem to be shifting public opinion much, if at all.

But just because the Conservatives can shout loudly that no one cares about this stuff, that doesn’t mean that the prime minister’s complicated relationship with truth can be easily dismissed. Most straightforwardly, there are several investigations now into exactly what has happened with the Downing Street flat that could trip up him and the Conservative Party.

Sources who told the BBC and other news organisations that Mr Johnson did say he would rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into a third lockdown have said they would be prepared to testify under oath if they have to.

Depending how and when those two issues unwind, there could be big trouble for Downing Street.

Politics is an extremely tough business, as Mr Johnson has been discovering of late. Huge parliamentary majorities do not protect you from personal criticism. And many of the government’s current woes can, arguably, be traced back to the PM’s relationship with the truth.

I’ve been told on more occasions than I can count that Boris Johnson trusts hardly anyone, and suspects almost everyone. As one source describes it, he “behaves in such a way that people eventually tire of him, feel let down, and behave in the way he feared they would”. The breakdown in his relationship with his former adviser Dominic Cummings is spectacular evidence of that.

But people who work alongside Mr Johnson are often kept guessing, unsure of what he really thinks.

It leaves him all powerful. His whim rules.

But it also can make it harder to achieve what he says he wants – the priorities he was elected to deliver.

Yet popularity matters in politics too. Despite the horrors of coronavirus, hard realities have never been part of the PM’s desired script. To use one of his tactics, quoting the classics, the Greek philosopher Plato said: “No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth.”

But as one of the few people who genuinely knows Boris Johnson once told me, he is a politician who above all, wants to be loved.

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Business

Financing Africa’s recovery.

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Financing Africa’s recovery: Is there an unfair risk premium on lending to the continent?

France 24’s François Picard leads a discussion in which Lionel Zinsou, former Prime Minister of Benin, and Marin Ferry, Asst. Prof. at the Université Gustave Eiffel, articulate their views on the treatment of African economies on the international bond markets and by credit rating agencies. Is there an anti-African stigma on the financial markets?

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Great Speeches

Return What You Stole From Africa, Chimamanda Adichie Tells Europe

Chimamanda Adichie Keynote Address Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.

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Published: May 11, 2021 07:13 PM

The vociferous Pan-Africanist made the call at the Humboldt Forum, Berlin in Germany, where she stressed that the materials regarded as African art, represent the cultural identity, dignity and religious inclination of people in the region.

Below is the full transcript of Chimamanda’s courageous speech that went viral on the Internet.

IKENGA: African Sacred Object, Repository of Spiritual Meaning

WHEN I was researching my second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which is set during the Nigerian Biafran war that started in 1967, a woman told me a story about her elderly father. It was early in the war and they were in the Biafran hometown, feeling relatively safe because the war seemed far away. Then suddenly they heard the loud terrifying sounds of bombing very close to them, and they knew that they had only minutes to leave their home and run into the interior for safety, before the Nigerian soldiers arrived.

The elderly father was a wealthy man, but the only thing he rushed to take with was his Ikenga, a piece of wood, a beautifully carved piece of wood, but it wasn’t just a piece of wood, it was also the repository of spiritual meaning. The Ikenga represented his Chi, his personal spirit as well as his ancestors, his guardian angels.

I was struck by this story. This man, facing the possibility of never seeing his home again, chose the thing that mattered most to him. Of cause, he cared about his material possessions, but he believed that those things can eventually be replaced, while his Ikenga was irreplaceable.

There are Ikengas in various museums all over the world today and it is easy to forget as we stare and admire them behind cold and clinical glass barriers that these are objects that are religious, spiritual, and sacred.

Art lives in history and history lives in art. Much of what we call African art are as well documents that tell stories. Some are literal in the storytelling like the beautifully ornate Benin Stool that was sent to the Oba of Benin by his people when he was exiled by the British and which he looked at and immediately could deduce from the carvings, the State of his British plundered land.

Other sculptures and carvings are more metaphorical, they speak to the dignity of the people, to their worldview and to their aspirations.

Some of the early Christian missionaries across the African continent were very keen on destroying African art, carved African deities which they told the Africans, were just magic. I cannot help but riley wonder what could be more magical than the story of a man who dies and then magically rises again; a man who also manages to magically give his body as bread, and I say this by the way, as a newly returned Roman Catholic.

The point is that belief systems vary, and as long as they feed the spiritual needs of a people, they are valid. We cannot be dismissive of a belief system merely because it is unfamiliar to us, just as we cannot be dismissive of a history because we are uncomfortable with it.

How Europe Distort African History of Colonization

So I would like to tell a small story about a Nigerian woman who is married to a Belgium and has lived in Belgium for many years. She said once that she was shocked that her son, while being taught Belgian history was taught nothing about Congo. “They teach my son in school that he must help the poor Africans” she said, “but they don’t teach him about what Belgium did in Congo.” Now, if Hassan does not learn that the modern Congo State began 100 years ago as the personal property of a brutal Belgian King, who was desperate to get wealthy from ivory and rubber; if her son does not learn that the hands of Congolese people were chopped off with rusty axes for not producing enough resources to meet a cast, because we collectively acknowledge that it is so. It is not that Europe has denied its colonial history that would be too crude; it’s instead that Europe has developed a way of telling the story of its colonial history that ultimately seeks to erase that history.

The former French Prime Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy gave a now infamous Speech in Senegal in which he said I have not come to deny mistakes or crimes; mistakes were made and crimes committed, but no one can ask the generation of today to expiate this crime perpetrated by past generations. This is central to the story that Europe tells itself about its colonial history. It is a story that basically says, yes colonialism happened, but, and whatever comes after the ‘but’ is the focus of the story. What the focus on the ‘but’ does is that it absolves, it frees Europe of responsibility of a significant and traceable connection to the African present and it allows Europe the glow of charity.

But the truth is that the past does not merely tell us what happened yesterday. It also merely illuminates what happens today. If we acknowledge that present-day Europe is shaped by the renaissance of 600 years ago, by the enlightenment of 300 years ago, then surely we cannot say that what happened merely 100 years ago in Africa no longer matters; it matters.

We are gathered today in this reconstructed palace, a beautiful place, but also a place that represents Germany’s nostalgia for imperial times. When Kaiser William the second lived here, German troops were killing children, women and men in South West Africa; this building says that German history matters even in a romanticized form.

The history of Africa, Asia and Latin America must matter as well. We cannot pick and choose which histories and which point of views that still matter, because to do this would be an ugly exercise of brute power.

And speaking of power, here is a headline I just read in a German publication. The headline says ‘where do Africa’s treasures belong?’ Now imagine this headline differently; imagine if it said, ‘where do Germany’s treasures belong?’ It would be a redundant question because, of cause, Germany’s treasures belong in Germany. But the question would never even be asked, because there would be no circumstance in which it would be, because of power and so it seems to me that what we are fundamentally grappling with in this space in all of these questions about the Humboldt forum is power. Unequal power and how we navigate unequal power relations and there has always been to me something shabby about unequal power relations, the victory feels colorless, almost unearned.

Call On Germany To Toe Part Of Courage, Return To Africa What Isn’t Theirs

So, I spoke of Belgium and its colonial history but what of Germany and its colonial history? Do school children here learn about Namibia, what was called the German South West Africa? Do school children know that one hundred thousand Herero people were murdered by the Germans, do they know of the Whales that were poisoned, do they know of the women used as sex slaves and others as slaves in German camps? Do they know of the Nama people killed and of the Majimaji revolt in German East Africa and why should they know? Because, to tell only part one part of a story is essentially to lie.

A story is true only when it is complete. Germany is Beethoven and Germany is back and Germany is also its colonial atrocities that has resulted in hundreds of African skulls being stored in the basement of museums here in Berlin; skulls of men whose spirits cannot be at rest; men who could well have been my great-grand father had I happened to have been born in Eastern Germany, rather than Western Africa.

It is only fair to fully own all of the stories of Germany. All countries have parts of their pasts that they’re not proud of, that they would rather forget, but it takes courage to face those parts and bring in some light, and this is time for courage, the courage to hear dissenting voices such as those of the people who are outside right now protesting, they should be heard and included, they have valid concerns.

The courage not to merely say we take your criticism, but to follow it with action; the courage to say, we were wrong, the courage to say about art acquired illicitly, ‘this is not ours, tell us what to do with it.’ The courage to do provenance work and to actively use local knowledge; the courage to act and to act now and not become crippled by endless planning and endless talking; the courage to believe that it can be better.

We cannot change the past but we can change our blindness to the past. And why by the way, is the term ethnological used for art from certain parts of the world and not for other parts of the world.

In discussing some of this art that we term ethnological, and I would argue that the language itself already suggests a hierarchy of value. When we talk about this art, we were told that they cannot be returned to Africa; for example because Africans will not take good care of them. It is not merely condescending to say I cannot return what I stole from you, because you will not take good care of it; it is also lacking in basic logic, since when has the basis of ownership been taking good care of what is owned.

This position is paternalistic arrogance of the most stunning sort. It does not matter whether Africans or Asians or Latin Americans can take care of the arts stolen from them;, what matters is that it is theirs.

The brilliant Nigerian artist Viktor Hickameno put it much better than I could and in very Nigerian terms, he says, ‘if I come and steal your wrapper, and I say I won’t give you back your wrapper because you will not tie it properly around your waist or you will not wash it well and so the colors would fade or this or that, all are irrelevant. The wrapper is mine and I can do with it what I will. Give me back my wrapper because it is mine. The metaphorical wrapper for those of you who are befuddled by wrapper, it’s a piece of cloth. It should be returned for the reason that Ahika men are illustrates which is respecting the property of others, but also because Europe has defined itself as a place of certain values, progress, liberty, fraternity, tolerance, individual rights and most it all, the rule of law.

A nation that believes in the rule of law, cannot possibly be debating whether to return stolen goods, it just returns them. So, if the dignity of those from whom the art was stolen does not matter, then surely this idea should matter that Europe should be what it claims to be, live up to the ideals with which you define yourself. I should pause here and note that sometimes these conversations run the risk of sounding like empty moralizing or like asking for the impossible or the unrealistic or insisting on an unattainable purity and perfection.

Obviously I don’t think everything should be sent to the countries from which they came. Not everything was stolen. But those things that are sacred, those things for whom people were killed, those things that have in them the stain of innocent blood should be returned.

Obviously we do not have all the information, but there are facts lost in unrecorded history, but we can draw reasonable conclusion based on information that we do have. We can deduce for example that the Ingonso, the beautiful sculpture of the founder and guiding spirit of the Ensui people of Cameroun, a former German colony, could not possibly have been obtained under benign circumstances because why would you willingly give up your guiding spirit. It is also important to remember that not all wounds are visible, some wounds we carry in our hearts inherited from our parents, passed on to our children.

But this discourse is of course not just about the Humboldt Forum, it is about museums all over Europe in France and Vatican, in Britain and I must acknowledge that Germany is the first of the powerful European nations that has made a gesture towards returning the Benin bronzes, but it is also interesting that the announcement said that a substantial amount would be returned which made me wonder how this would be determined and by whom.

And it is equally interesting that it is British colonial loot rather than German colonial loot that is being returned by Germany. But still, it is progress and Germany’s action, this gesture towards righting what is wrong must be acknowledged. My acknowledgement of it is not to say that the work is done, but that the work has started, and that perhaps, a place like the British museum and I know that Neil is here which owns the majority of the Benin bonzes might perhaps be inspired by the German decision and hopefully the British museum will rethink its policy of retain and explain which is unacceptable.

So, this is the Humboldt Forum. A forum usually implies among other things a space created for a free exchange of ideas, one can only hope that the Humboldt would live up to its name as a space for true intercultural and trans-cultural exchange of ideas in mutual respect between the cultures. But this rhetoric free exchange of ideas must be practical and by that I mean such things as travel visas, it must be easy for people from Africa, Asia and Latin America who should participate in this conversations to get travel visas.

The Humboldt Forum was conceived as a place to tell the universal story of the human race from multiple perspectives. This is a commendable idea, but it is incomplete, because again, we must confront the issue of power, who tells the story, who is the teller, and who is told about, who decided that African art should be labeled ethnological; who has the right to exhibit the other. Can the Humboldt Forum be an opportunity, can it become among other things, a project of remembering solemn, honest and mutual respect.

In conclusion, I want to say that I believe very much in dialogue, and I really believe that we can recreate the world by acting more courageously. To act with courage is to have concrete hope in a better future, we carve out a small space of the world, we shape and we reshape it and in that way small slice by small slice we walk slowly, yes, but we walk on the path to real progress.

Courage and hope are intertwined. Courage is an act of hope and hope is born of courage. Act of courage create hope, and there is nothing more essential to the human spirit than hope. So, here is the courage, thank you.

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Diaspora

FULL LIST: 8 Zimbabwean-born Win British Elections

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A total of 8 United Kingdom-based Zimbabwean-born politicians have won top political posts in the British elections in the last 12 months.

So far, two Zimbabwean-born have won the mayorship posts, one (Maggie Chapman who last week announced her oath in pure ChiShona) won the MP post while the rest are councillors.

Their ages range from 22 with the oldest being 56-year-old. The youngest, Nicolle Moyo last week told ZimEye she hadn’t even graduated when she discovered she has won the polls in the just-ended elections.

Below is the full list so far, comprising 6 women and 2 men:

  1. Amanda Tandi, 47 -. Councillor, District Of Knebworth.
  2. Nicolle Nkazimulo Moyo, 22 – Councillor. Peterborough.
  3. Lorraine Chirisa, 45 – Councillor, Northampton.
  4. Tafadzwa Chikoto, 45 – Councillor, Oakley, Corby
  5. Kate Nicoll, 33. – Mayor: Belfast.
  6. Alice Mpofu Coles, 56 – Councillor, Whitley, Reading.
  7. Adam Jogee, 30. – Mayor, Harringey.
  8. Maggie Chapman, 41, MP for North East Scotland.

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