I HAVE been trying to remember when it was, as a child, that it first dawned on me that people sometimes did not mean what they actually said. Of course, I knew about playground lies fairly early on. But it took a great deal longer for me to begin to question my deep assumption that adults could be relied on to tell the truth. In my youth, I continued with the guileless presumption that politicians would not tell a deliberate untruth. It took even longer for me to understand the fact that deceiving others could often involve a dose of self-delusion.
Our new reality hit this week. After all the posturing over the original Brexit referendum campaign, then three years of parliamentary to-ing and fro-ing, in which no one could agree how exactly we should best leave the European Union, then the barefaced bribes and competitive drive to the bottom which were the Tory leadership campaign — after all that, we finally have a new Prime Minister (News, Comment, 26 July).
What has been the result? A desperate indignation among the nation’s car-makers, sheep farmers, and business leaders; £100 million to be squandered on a public propaganda campaign. The pound has fallen to a two-year low as a Conservative government has spooked the markets with its evident determination to drive Britain off the no-deal cliff edge. It has come to something when it is a Conservative government that spooks the market; that is supposed to be the job of Labour (which is too deep in disarray to know where even to begin under the incompetent Jeremy Corbyn).
But then this is the government of a man who once declared “F*** business,” when business leaders dared to point out that economic reality did not fit with Boris bluster. His ambition has grown since then. A policy of “F*** Britain entirely” now seems to be the actually policy of this latter-day Loki in pursuit of his coming Golden Age.
Most extraordinarily, that campaign bluster has not been set aside by the reality of power. While electioneering, Mr Johnson spoke of “a million-to-one chance” of Britain leaving the EU with no deal. A couple of days into the new administration, Michael Gove announced that no deal was now the most likely option among the Government’s working assumptions. Two days later, in Scotland, Mr Johnson was back to his million-to-one bombast.
Confusion seems to be part of his governing strategy. After meeting him, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson — who has been vehement in her opposition to no deal — emerged saying that she had been reassured. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, emerged from her encounter saying that it was clear that Mr Johnson was hellbent on no deal.
In a less shameless age, one might have assumed that the two powerful Scots women each read his words through different lenses. Sadly, it now seems only too likely that our new Prime Minister said one thing to one woman and the opposite to the other, as he plays poker with the nation’s future.
Untruth, lies, dissembling, delusion, and self-delusion: it seems that, in the months ahead, we may learn a lot more about the blurred lines between these dubious distinctions.