Johnson’s Lies Worked for Years, Until They Didn’t

After a lifetime of swaggering and dissembling his way through one scandal after another on the strength of his prodigious political skills — a potent mix of charm, guile, ruthlessness, hubris, oratorical dexterity and rumpled Wodehousian bluster — Boris Johnson has finally reached the end. It seems that the laws of gravity apply to him after all.

It’s not that he ever fooled anyone about who he really was. Over the years, he has routinely been described as mendacious, irresponsible, reckless and lacking any coherent philosophy other than wanting to seize and hold on to power.

“People have known that Boris Johnson lies for 30 years,” the writer and academic Rory Stewart, a former Conservative member of Parliament, said recently. “He’s probably the best liar we’ve ever had as a prime minister. He knows a hundred different ways to lie.”

In contrast to former President Donald J. Trump, another politician with an improvisational and often distant relationship to the truth, Mr. Johnson’s approach has rarely been to double down on his lies or to delude himself for consistency’s sake into acting as if they were true. Rather, he recasts them to fit new information that comes to light, as if the truth were a fungible concept, no more solid than quicksand.

In happier times, Boris Johnson surveyed his domain as mayor of London from the Shard building in 2013.Credit…Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Mislead, omit, obfuscate, bluster, deny, deflect, attack, apologize while implying that he has done nothing wrong — the British prime minister’s blueprint for dealing with a crisis, his critics say, almost never begins, and rarely ends, with simply telling the truth. That approach worked for him for years — until finally it didn’t.

His government weathered scandal after scandal, much of it centered on Mr. Johnson’s own behavior. He was rebuked by the government’s own ethics adviser after a wealthy Conservative donor contributed tens of thousands of pounds to help him refurbish his apartment. (Mr. Johnson repaid the money.) There were the private text messages he exchanged with a wealthy British businessman over his plan to manufacture ventilators in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, which raised questions of impropriety. There was an almost farcical accrual of embarrassing disclosures about how often Mr. Johnson’s aides (and sometimes Mr. Johnson) attended boozy parties during the worst days of the Covid lockdown, flagrantly violating rules the country had set for itself.

In the end, the prime minister’s different explanations for what he knew, and when, about Chris Pincher, a Conservative legislator accused of sexual impropriety, finally tipped the scales against him. It was clear that he had once again failed to tell the truth.

“He’s been found out,” said Anthony Sargeant, 44, a software developer who lives in the northern city of Wakefield. “The annoying thing about it is that the signs were there.”

“He’s been sacked from previous journalism roles for lying,” Mr. Sargeant went on, pointing to the time Mr. Johnson, then a young reporter, was fired from The Times of London for making up a quote. “Yet there he was, the leader of the Conservative Party becoming the prime minister.”

After helping engineer the downfall of his competent but lackluster predecessor, Theresa May, in 2019, Mr. Johnson entered office with an energetic mandate for change. His populist message, buoyant personality and easy promises to cut taxes and red tape, free Britain from the burdens of belonging to the European Union and restore the country’s pride in itself appealed to a public weary of the brutal fight over the Brexit referendum and eager to embrace someone who appeared to be expressing what they themselves felt.

But like Mr. Trump, who put a more sinister cast on his own populist message, Mr. Johnson has always behaved as if he were bigger than the office that he held, as if the damage he caused was inconsequential as long as he could remain in power. His resignation speech, in which he vowed to remain in office until the Conservatives could choose a new leader, was notable for its lack of self-awareness and its misreading of the curdled mood of his former supporters.

Born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — he began using “Boris” in a sort of rebranding exercise in high school — the soon-to-be-ex prime minister has a long and well-documented history both of evading the truth and of acting as if he believes himself to be exempt from the normal rules of behavior. His many years in public life — as a newspaper reporter and columnist, as the editor of an influential London political magazine, as a politician — have left a trail of witnesses to, and victims of, his slippery nature.

Critics said Mr. Johnson was well suited to the London mayoralty, where he played a mock buffoonish character. That did not translate well to the prime minister’s post.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

When he was editor of the Spectator magazine, he lied to the editor, Conrad Black, promising not to serve in Parliament while working at the magazine. (He did.) When he was first elected to Parliament, he lied to his constituents when he promised to quit his Spectator job. (He didn’t.) As a legislator, he lied to the party leader, Michael Howard, and to the news media when he publicly declared that he had not had an affair with a writer for the magazine, nor gotten her pregnant and paid for her abortion. (He had done all of that.)

In a strange incident that he found hilarious but that epitomized his general lack of seriousness, in 2002 he ordered an employee at The Spectator to impersonate him when a photographer for The New York Times arrived to take his picture, fully expecting The Times to embarrass itself by publishing a photograph of the wrong person. (The ruse was discovered only toward the end of the photo shoot, when the magazine’s publisher found out what was happening.)

When he was the Brussels correspondent for the right-leaning Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s, Mr. Johnson wrote highly entertaining but blatantly inaccurate articles designed to paint the European Union as a factory of petty regulation intent on stamping out British individuality — articles that helped establish an anti-Europe narrative for a generation of Conservatives and pave the way for Brexit, two decades later.

Mr. Johnson himself described the experience years later to the BBC as akin to “chucking rocks over the garden wall” and then realizing that “everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party.”

“And it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he said.

In 2016, serving simultaneously as mayor of London and a member of Parliament, Mr. Johnson betrayed the Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, when he led the pro-leave side of the Brexit debate, contrary to the party’s position. Serving as foreign secretary under Mr. Cameron’s successor, Ms. May, he stabbed her in the back — and set the stage for his own accession to the job — by resigning from the government and publicly denouncing the Brexit agreement she had spent months negotiating.

Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, at a meeting at Downing Street in 2016. He subsequently stabbed her in the back, setting the stage for his ascent. Credit…Pool photo by Peter Nicholls

His womanizing and affairs were an open secret during his long marriage to his second wife, Marina Wheeler, the mother of four of his (at least) seven children. They separated when his affair with a Conservative official, Carrie Symonds, now the mother of two of the seven, came to light.

He has at least one other child, a daughter born during a liaison with a married adviser when he was the (still-married) mayor of London, in the early 2010s.

“I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday,” Max Hastings, the Telegraph editor who hired Mr. Johnson as his Brussels correspondent, once said. In 2019, when Mr. Johnson was poised to become prime minister, Mr. Hastings wrote an article entitled “I was Boris Johnson’s Boss: He is Utterly Unfit to be Prime Minister.” In it, he called Mr. Johnson a “cavorting charlatan” who suffered from “moral bankruptcy” and exhibited “a contempt for the truth.”

Mr. Johnson celebrating the signing of the Brexit trade deal with the European Union in December 2020. While a historic accomplishment, Brexit has yet to deliver the rewards Mr. Johnson promised.Credit…Pool photo by Leon Neal

Mr. Hastings, who employed Mr. Johnson when the future prime minister was in his 20s, was not the first to raise questions about his seriousness of purpose and inflated sense of self.

When Mr. Johnson was 17 and a student at Eton College, the all-boys boarding school that caters to the country’s elites, his classics teacher sent a letter home to Mr. Johnson’s father, Stanley.

“Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies,” the teacher, Martin Hammond, wrote, and “sometimes seems affronted when criticized for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility.”

He added, speaking of the teenager who would grow up to be a prime minister: “I think 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 that binds everyone else.”

Isabella Kwai contributed reporting from London.

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