His pork pies about kippers are worthy of satire, but his false promises to his own party will be Boris Johnson’s undoing, writes Euan McColm
How fitting it was that a man who began his career by telling laughable lies about the European Union should have begun his final speech before becoming prime minister with a laughable lie about the European Union. Boris Johnson may be a thoroughly dishonest man but at least he is consistent.
As he stood before Tory members who had gathered for the last in a series of hustings in London on Wednesday evening, Johnson raised above his head a shrink-wrapped kipper.
The crowd – or at least a sizeable and noisy section of it – lapped up Johnson’s story of how the EU, with its infernal regulations, insisted that the producer of this product could post it to customers only if it was nestled against a block of ice.
What clearer evidence did one need of the EU’s moral turpitude? But the rousing news was that those faceless bureaucratic bastards with their sinister insistence on chilling fish in transit would soon have their bony fingers prised off our Great British Kippers. When Johnson delivers Brexit on 31 October, smoked fish will be posted, freely, without the need for ice, that despicable modern perversion of water. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to get started.
As is so often the case with a Johnson claim, his attack on the EU overlords and their kipper diktat was nonsense. It soon emerged that the regulations about the use of ice in the delivery by mail order of kippers – and other perishable foodstuffs – did not emanate from Brussels but are, in fact, British in origin. We have no need to take back control from the EU rules about the posting of fish because that control already lies with us.
When it comes to sending a Great British Kipper to a Great British Aunt, Great British Companies are required to use Great British Ice because of Great British Laws.
Let us at least take comfort from that fact that when the UK does, eventually, leave the EU, the requirement to prevent food from rotting while it makes its way through the postal system will remain in place. After all, if Brexit means Brexit, so food poisoning means food poisoning.
Rewind 30 years and Johnson – whose defeat of Jeremy Hunt in the contest to replace Theresa May seems inevitable – made quite the name for himself as the Brussels Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, the readers of which were exercised and entertained by a stream of Johnson stories about bureaucratic meddling in all manner of areas from the shape of bananas to the size of condoms.
Even then, the prime-minister-in-waiting was a master of taking a single grain of truth and using it as the foundation for a sand castle of bollocks. This sort of thing might be bearable enough when the only people being lied to are readers of the Telegraph but when we are victims of the Johnson machine, the joke stops being funny.
Even before Johnson was starting his career, his rise to power was (sort of) predicted by the great sitcom, Yes Minister.
In the final episode of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s fine comedy, Jim Hacker secures victory in the battle to become prime minister by standing up against European bureaucrats in defence of the Great British Banger. Europe wishes to standardise sausages, meaning that those produced in the United Kingdom which did not meet the approved standards would have to be designated as “emulsified high-fat offal tubes”.
Hacker’s stout defence of our sausages captures the public imagination and is a factor in his victory in the leadership contest.
It’s 35 years since that episode of Yes Minister was broadcast and Johnson has gone full Jim Hacker.
There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at Johnson’s false claim about kipper delivery. We could shrug and say, “Well, in the scheme of things, a little bit of mischief about smoked fish doesn’t amount to much.” Alternatively – and this is the take I favour – we could say, “Well, this proves he will lie about anything, no matter how insignificant.”
Johnson is a man for whom trifling matters such as accuracy are for the little people. He imagines himself the great statesman, a born leader whose powerful rhetoric can unite and inspire, whose command of debate can vanquish all comers.
It should be a matter of great embarrassment to the UK that this man should have been allowed to rise to the top because he has the ability to sell stories to the gullible.
But here we are in this miserable place. On Tuesday, it will be announced that Boris Johnson has defeated Jeremy Hunt in the Conservative leadership contest and will, thereafter, become our prime minister.
On his journey to that destination, he has been powered by lies. Significantly, the two biggest claims he has made are entirely contradictory.
To the hardline Eurosceptic ideologues of his party’s right-wing, Johnson has promised Brexit by Halloween, do or die.
To those of his colleagues who believe in pragmatism and reality, he has promised to lead as a unifying One Nation Conservative.
Both of these things cannot, at the same time, be true. Should he take power and pander entirely to the right, he will destroy the remaining crumbs of the possibility that he can unite his party and country. Should he take power and then argue for a more measured approach to Brexit, then the wing-nuts of the Tory Party’s European Research Group will descend upon him like jackals. Their punishment shall be brutal and his treachery shall live in infamy.
However, while it is not possible for both of Johnson’s promises to be true, it is entirely possible for both of them to be false. It is entirely possible that he will not be able to keep his promise to the Brexiteer right while also not being able to unite anyone.
It is possible – indeed likely – that both wings of the Tory party have been stitched up like kippers by the emulsified high-fat offal tube who is about to become our prime minister.