A general election is looming in the UK, where I am based. In another Brexit-related political episode of political volatility, the country is to go through its second general election in two years (they are usually every five years) to break a deadlock over Brexit in the British parliament. The campaigning has shown that since the referendum, something corrosive has taken over. It seems that, among the governing Conservative party, lying has become part of the election strategy, with no evidence that this will hurt its electoral prospects on polling day.
Members of the party have been caught dissimulating brazenly on the campaign trail, and their supporters don’t seem to care. Now, I think we reach too eagerly for the Trumpification of politics trope, but there is evidence that when tribalism takes hold, words lose their meaning and actions lose their moral dimension.
Politicians caught red-handed
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, doesn’t only lie, he does so badly. A particularly low watermark of the election campaign happened when the Conservative party’s official Twitter account changed its handle and branding to "Fact Check UK" during a debate between Johnson and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. The intent was to make it look like what were in fact partisan points were neutral "fact checks".
The only thing more staggering than the cynicism of the move, I thought, is that they thought they could get away with it. But despite being called out on it both immediately and the next day on high profile news interviews, they kind of did get away with it. When questioned on the ruse, Johnson himself responded with a word salad of evasion.
And it didn’t stop there. When interviewed by a flagship BBC politics programme last week, Johnson lied again. Journalists try to frantically fact bomb when they can, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. In the US, CNN created a whole beat dedicated to documenting Trump’s lies. It also doesn’t appear to have made a difference to his poll numbers. Supporters either think the lying is just politics as usual, or that it doesn’t matter because it comes from someone on their side and all is fair in love and war, and politics these days is war.
And on it goes. A few days after the factcheck shimmy, a Conservative member of parliament was caught out when trying to defend a point in the party’s manifesto which claimed that the Conservatives would add 50,000 nurses to the NHS. It turns out that 19,000 of those nurses already exist. Conservative MP Nicky Morgan argued that those 19,000 nurses would be retained by convincing them to stay. Hence they should be added to the number of overall nurses added to the NHS. The presenters interviewing her dissolved in peals of laughter.
This is not just lying, it’s literally Orwellian 2+2=5 stuff. But the polls still have the party ahead. Some vox pop voters even defended Johnson’s lies – it’s just politics, they shrugged. It’s a bleak thought that there really are no floating voters anymore, or many that will change their minds no matter what the evidence is. And so why should parties try to court anyone but their hardcore base? They might as well draw doodles on their manifestos then sit back and wait for their tribe to show up at the ballot box.
Now for the silver lining ...
But I want to end on an uplifting note. Someone who has noticed the new magical realism level of politicians’ lies and completely nails the Kafkaesque absurdity is one Mr Michael Spicer. Sometimes, the only way to do a horrific thing justice is by laughing at it. Check him out and thank me in the comments below.