Boris Johnson was attacked and derided when he gave his first press conference as British Foreign Secretary with his American counterpart John Kerry. Journalists asked why they should trust him, what they should make of the ‘outright lies’ he had told throughout his career, and if he recalled the many insults he’d levelled at other world leaders and their countries.
‘There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued,’ bumbled Boris. ‘Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended.’
Let’s provide some of that context now. In 1990, for instance, not long after Boris had been sacked from The Times newspaper for making up fake quote in an article, he was recorded talking to his old Eton and Oxford university friend (and later convicted fraudster) Darius Guppy. Guppy wanted Johnson to give him the contact details of a News of the World journalist so he could set heavies on him.
‘My blood is up... There is nothing I won’t do to get my revenge,’ said Guppy.
‘How badly are you going to hurt this guy?’ asked Boris.
‘Not badly at all.’
‘I really want to know,’ said Boris. (Are you letting in a chink of sympathy?)
‘Look let me explain to you...’ said Guppy.
‘If this guy sues me I will be fucking furious,’ said Boris. (Oh well.)
Guppy eventually reassured Boris that the journalist would probably just get a couple of black eyes and a broken rib. Boris remained concerned that he might ‘get in trouble’ but eventually said ‘I’ll do it.’
For the sake of context, it’s worth noting that Guppy’s plans didn’t work out. The journalist wasn’t beaten up. Perhaps Boris had been deceiving Guppy and didn’t supply the particulars he wanted. Perhaps Guppy had second thoughts. But whatever it was that ‘was intended’ it wasn’t good.
Mind you, in 1990, Boris had lots of other things on his mind. While that tape was being recorded Boris was working in Brussels for the Daily Telegraph, and busy developing two new journalistic genres that would change our lives forever: post-Truth and the Euromyth.
‘Threat to British pink sausages’; ‘Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same’ ran the headlines on Boris’s popular dispatches from the Belgian capital. ‘Snails are fish, says EU.’
Of course, that wasn’t quite what the EU said. And Boris got quite a reputation for telling stretchers. So outrageous were his porkies that James Landale, a fellow Brussels correspondent, was moved to verse. ‘Boris told such dreadful lies,’ he wrote, ‘It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.’
But Boris knew he was onto something. These stories of out-of-control bureaucracy were just what Torygraph readers wanted to hear. It might have been complete Horlicks, but it fed their prejudices. More than that, it helped create an image of the EU that has been prevalent in the UK ever since. Not least because Boris has kept hard at it. When he betrayed his Prime Minister David Cameron and declared his hand in the referendum for Leave, he proudly reminisced in the Telegraph about ‘ludicrous’ EU rules: ‘like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons’.
It’s true at least that the rules sound daft. Typically, the rest is nonsense. There are no rules about children blowing up balloons or any of us recycling teabags. But Boris has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good story. He explained to the BBC that during his time in Brussels:
‘[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall. And I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as 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.’
Boris enjoyed the weird power so much that his next move was into politics. He became an MP for the Tory safe seat of Henley in 2001. By May 2004 he had risen to be the Shadow Minister for Arts. By November he had been sacked. Johnson had dismissed allegations that he had been having an affair as an ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’ – but as usual it was he himself who had been over-liberal with the truth and his leader told him to step down.
Yet somehow, Boris carried on. In 2008 he became Mayor of London where he set about disfiguring London’s skyline with dozens of phallic skyscrapers. He also built absurd white elephants like a £60 million cable car across the river. In 2013, just four commuters used this bizarre device often enough to qualify for a regular users’ discount. Four. In a city of ten million.
Boris’s relationship with the truth also grew still more estranged during his tenure in London. As well as spreading the usual manure, he started concealing facts. Most notoriously, he failed to publish a report that said 433 primary schools in London were being exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. Which is worth saying again. Children were being poisoned, with lifelong consequences. And rather than doing something about it, Boris kept the evidence from his electorate.
And then, there came the Brexit campaign where Boris repeatedly appeared in front of a bus claiming ‘we send the EU £350 million’. Which was untrue. And also in front of signs saying, ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.’ Which no one had any intention of doing.
And yet still, in spite of everything, he became the UK Foreign Secretary and got to appear alongside John Kerry and other world leaders. Blonde and scruffy and smiling, a giant and terrifying metaphor for our age, a man who lies as easily and happily as a dog licks his balls, representing his country at one of the most delicate points in its history. Jean-Marc Ayrault – the French foreign minister – complained that the EU would need a negotiating partner who had not ‘lied a lot’ and who was ‘clear, credible and reliable’. But how naïve was Ayrault? That sounds far too sensible. It’s never going to happen. It’s Boris’s world now. We’re just living in it.
Learn about nations and their leaders with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson!
- President Putin is ‘a ruthless and manipulative tyrant’.
- Donald Trump is ‘out of his mind’ and exhibits ‘stupefying ignorance’.
- Barrack Obama is ‘downright hypocritical’.
- ‘Chinese cultural influence,’ he says ‘is virtually nil, and unlikely to increase.’
- On the Commonwealth he says: ‘It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.’
- When Tony Blair went to visit the Congo, he said: ‘The tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.’