THE ghastly people around Boris Johnson would have listened to yesterday’s Today programme with complete satisfaction. To the unwary, it might have sounded like more bad news for Johnson but the art of the smear is much more complex than that.
Headlines were about the mobbing of Keir Starmer by anti-vaxxers, Assange supporters and assorted malcontents. But the key point, which would not have been left to chance, was that from within the rabble there were shouts of “Savile” and “defending paedophiles” directed at Starmer.
That made it a major story and, in a more rational world, another nail in Johnson’s political coffin. As night follows day, these events were directly traceable to the smear directed at Starmer in the House of Commons by our Prime Minister. His ignominy was enhanced – or so “right-thinking people” might assume.
But then Johnson’s target audience was not “right-thinking people” who take even a modest interest in public affairs. It was to plant a smear that would be repeated, repeated and repeated, then amplified by curious events like the besieging of Starmer. It was to promote a lie that previously subsisted in sinister corners of the internet.
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When Johnson used the Savile line, he knew precisely what he was doing. This was no spur of the moment smear or random insult from a desperate man. It was a coldly calculated tactic which would have been talked through with his closest advisers in order to tailor delivery and maximise effect.
Indeed, confirmation of premeditation came from a woman who had the decency to walk away, his Head of Policy, Munira Mirza. “I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice,” she wrote. “There was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion. This was not the normal cut-and-thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse”.
None of that mattered to Johnson. His “clarification” was pure hypocrisy for he had known exactly what would follow. His smear would be deplored, defended, argued about. But above all it would be repeated until it entered the consciousness of every sentient person in the land. That is the art of the smear.
It leaves Tory MPs with an even clearer choice than before. Is this really what they are prepared to be associated with? It is, of course, straight out of the Trump playbook. Maybe they should recall that although Trump denigrated and destroyed anyone who stood in his path, divided his country and held its democracy in contempt, ultimately he was defeated.
Hanging onto the coat-tails of Johnson offers no more certain prospect so maybe it’s time to do the decent thing. An object lesson on the alternative was provided by Chris Philp, the digital technology minister, who was sent out yesterday to defend Johnson and repeat as often as possible the words “Starmer” and “Savile” in the same sentence. For any politician with a shred of personal self-respect, that is the road to perdition.
There is no precedent in British politics. No Prime Minister has been so contemptuous of decency and so tarnished by gross dishonesty. To anyone who has followed Johnson’s career as a journalist and politician, this comes as no surprise. The broadcaster Eddie Mair should have alerted the nation in 2013 when he listed a few of Johnson’s proven misdemeanours and challenged him: “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”
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To those who suspended disbelief or managed to remain unaware of the reality, there is now no hiding place – particularly for Tory MPs. “Nasty piece of work” scarcely covers the Savile smear but just as at every stage of his career, it confirmed Johnson’s willingness to lie, lie and lie again in order to protect his own position and ambitions.
This is now calling-out time before these tactics become fully embedded as an acceptable way for our politics to be conducted. More is at stake than the fate of a Tory Prime Minister, who would be succeeded by another Tory Prime Minister. Just as in America, legitimising extremes is much more serious.
The arrival of Huawei lobbyist Gutto Harri in Downing Street as head of communications will leave any reputation he has left in the gutter. Laughing about Johnson not being “a complete clown” will not bring absolution. He is now part of the circus. Harri opined recently that Johnson is “tribal within the tribe”. That is the tribe which now holds decency in our public life in its hands.
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