As someone with a background in psychology, I’m curious about two things – why does Liz Truss vocally support Boris Johnson, and how does this reflect on her integrity as the new prime minister?
There is, of course, a small band of Trumpesque Johnson supporters who insist he’s been ‘unfairly dismissed’. But let’s be clear. The reason why Johnson was told to resign was, in fact, because the wider electorate and his ministers decided they’d ‘had enough’.
The electorate had had enough of Johnson
Johnson proved to be a leader who lied constantly (on Brexit, new hospitals, on prorogation to the Queen) and defended breaking international law. He culled dissenters whilst protecting bullies, sex pests and rule-breakers. He was constitutionally incapable of taking the pandemic seriously, missing five COBR meetings when Covid first surged in Europe, failing to lock down when advised, ignoring the Covid bereaved, making obscene comments about last gasp masks and bodies piling high whilst partying throughout. His tenure was such as stream of scandals (Partygate, Wallpapergate, CareHomegate, Lebedevgate) it began to resemble a hurdles race. I could go on, but I’ll stop there.
Rebel commentators have been vocal. The conservative Dominic Grieve describes Johnson as “a pathological liar” who “treats the electorate with contempt” and whose willingness to “renege on treaties has destroyed international trust”.
Another conservative, Peter Oborne, describes Johnson as “the most squalid, venal, amoral PM in British history”.
James O’Brien portrays Johnson elegantly as a palanquin-riding Emperor, carried by gazoo-playing cabinet minions who gradually notice his nakedness. Johnson, he claims, is “one of the most fraudulent individuals to ever have inhabited public life in Britain”, a “bullying coward”, “a purveyor of propaganda” and “an appalling scar on the history of democracy, without standards, ethics, respect for parliamentary procedure or the rule of law”.
Yet this catastrophic PM has Truss’s “full support”. So fulsome is her support that she has publicly expressed her backing for a move to end the privileges committee inquiry into whether Johnson lied to MPs. So, what’s going on?
For now, Johnson is perched on the backbenches. But his parting ‘hasta la vista’ and ‘Cincinnatus’ comments drop fairly brazen hints that he wants to return as PM. So, perhaps Truss is lauding him because she needs to keep a potential enemy on side. But isn’t this a dangerous game? If she fails to deliver on the further right belligerent ‘extreme growth’ plan, then, by talking Johnson up, isn’t she accidentally facilitating his return?
Given the sordid list of Johnson’s failures, surely the obvious line for Truss to take would be that she intends to put the wreckage of the past behind her and return the party to those ‘cherished values’ of honesty, integrity and transparency that will put it back on course. But she isn’t adopting this sales pitch. We have to look elsewhere to explain why she instead lavishes praise on the PM she replaced.
Conspiracies of silence
I’d suggest that Truss opted to continue supporting Johnson because she is riding with two subterranean Conservative Party attitudes: deep embarrassment and brute survival instinct. To reach this subterranean level you have to cut through the Tories’ noisy boosterism and relentless self-assurance.
Behind all the bluster is that outside of the ‘Johnson back’ movement, the nation now has its finger on the button and knows he left in disgrace. This is supported by Labour’s current lead in the polls (including on leadership qualities). Voters are not fooled by Johnson and his protectors see this. They know his tenure got to a point where his reputation had fallen so low and people were so angry that his MPs had to show him the door or else lose their own seats. It took these MPs far longer than it should have done finally to accept that ‘the game was up’. But, by early 2022 the enchantment at Johnson’s 80-seat majority had collapsed under the weight of shame he had brought upon the party.
We can measure the extent of this ‘shame’ by the massive media and party conspiracy of silence over the true reasons behind Johnson’s ‘resignation’. Normally, the point at which a leader is leaving or has just left, is the time for honest scrutiny. But the mainstream media, including the BBC, have largely refused to present any serious analysis of the damage wrought by Johnson’s three-year reign. Instead they stared awkwardly and narrowly at the protracted election campaign for Johnson’s successor, following Truss in ignoring his catalogue of failures, and frequently echoing the tabloids’ portrayal of him as the fallen hero who “stared down the mutiny”.
The ‘Johnson’ narrative is also controlled in the House of Commons. When an honourable member described Johnson recently as “useless and corrupt” the speaker immediately insisted she withdraw her comments. She hadn’t even used the ‘L’ word. Her observation was simply deemed too critical.
But why the conspiracy of silence? Johnson came to power as a political messiah – the charismatic hero who triumphantly galloped centre stage on a huge majority to deliver Brexit. He was placed by his party and Brexit supporters on a gigantic pedestal with everything in his favour. So, when he fell, it was from an unusually great height and to an unusually low point. It’s one thing to have to leave because your policies are not working. Quite another to have to leave because you ruined the excitement by turning out to be a charlatan.
Deep down, Conservative ministers and members know this. Underneath the media and party silence is the unspoken acknowledgement that the man tipped to save the country instead wrecked it, discredited himself and jeopardised his party’s future prospects. The Gray report alone makes the party a seriously damaged brand. To the deep chagrin of the right, Johnson turned out to be not Midas but Icarus.
Truss of Oz: surviving shame the ‘right’ way
The Conservative Party’s fundamental driver is to survive by winning. For this, loyalty and extreme displays of strength and capability are required, all of which take priority over truth itself. But shame is inimical to this ‘winner’ mindset because shame implies fault and hence vulnerability. Conservative ministers are now panicking that a win at the next general election may elude them this time. So, the vital party response of last resort is to go into denial about having elected a charlatan. The contamination of the party by Johnson is concealed in a nuclear vault of media and ministerial silence, whilst his party ploughs on with noisy shows of strength.
Accordingly, Truss has to keep re-iterating Johnson’s ‘Three Big Calls’. Firstly, that he ‘got Brexit done’ – except he didn’t. The complex negative fallout from Brexit lumbers on. Secondly, that his ‘vaccine roll out was world leading’ – except it wasn’t. By Sept 2021 Britain had fallen to 13th in the rankings of percentage of population vaccinated. Thirdly, that he was at the ‘forefront of the Ukraine war effort’ – except he wasn’t. Any UK PM would have done the same or far better. Johnson’s refugee plan was abysmal. But this tatty triptych of false glories is all they have left.
Truss will, for example, continue presenting Brexit as a success because if she doesn’t, then this undermines Johnson’s skills in getting it over the line. Equally, she will continue to present Johnson as a success because if he wasn’t, then this undermines the wisdom of Brexit. It’s a case of ‘having to keep both balls ups in the air’ simultaneously.
How could they have got it so wrong? Johnson’s history was well-documented before 2019. So, the writing was already on the wall. The Conservative party and members basically took a chance on him. They put the facts to one side and promoted him to get Brexit over the line. Eventually they paid the price because Johnson’s true self quickly leaked through the media and party gloss. Their choice of leader was a massive, deeply embarrassing miscalculation that they now see could cost them the next general election.
But, true to form, rather than acknowledge their mistake and apologise to the nation, they chose instead to save face and promote their own survival by pretending they hadn’t erred. This desperate dishonesty is clearly illustrated in Truss’s major rewriting of history over Johnson. Her mission is to ameliorate party shame by dressing up this rattling skeleton in their closet as a major success. She needs it fully clothed in credibility to salvage the party’s next election win.
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