Protestor carrying placard image of Boris Johnson
Protestors critical of Boris Johnson - image by Jannes Van den Wouwer

There is, the old adage says, no sin worse than the lie told afterwards to deny it. Moral philosophers might dispute this principle, but in politics it has a lot to be said for it. Most politicians end up being accused by their opponents of deceit, but this perception of Boris Johnson is overwhelming, and this lying is widely regarded as deliberate, habitual and personally rather than politically self-interested.

Three-quarters of voters regularly tell pollsters that the PM is untrustworthy and over two-thirds now think he should resign; a recent poll inviting respondents to ascribe one word to each of the party leaders found that the runaway winner with Johnson was ‘liar’ (the corresponding term for Keir Starmer was ‘boring’). However, what makes the current government’s ‘sleaze’ so toxic is not just its scale and intensity, but its context.

The government’s supporters may comfort themselves that its damaged reputation is typical of the mid-cycle negative reaction of voters to individual ministerial failings exaggerated by a critical press."

Dr Matt Cole, School of History at the University of Birmingham

The government’s supporters may comfort themselves that its damaged reputation is typical of the mid-cycle negative reaction of voters to individual ministerial failings exaggerated by a critical press. ‘Sleaze’, of course, was the tag which burdened John Major’s government in the 1990s; his successor Tony Blair was accused of misleading the public over party funding and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; and under the coalition, Nick Clegg was forced to make a humiliating apology for breaking a key Liberal Democrat election pledge on student tuition fees. All parties felt the wrath of the public over expenses. Johnson’s woes could be regarded as just another short-term reaction by a hyper-sensitive electorate.

Except that the impact of these episodes was neither short-term nor cost-free. Blair fought the election after the Iraq war on a promise to resign; Major and Clegg led their parties to historically unprecedented election defeats. Secondly, the impact of these failures was exacerbated by their context – an environment in which the misbehaviour of the government was starkly at odds with its message to the public, and/or the government’s policy obligations – particularly on the economy – were not being met to the public’s satisfaction. Isolated infractions – affairs, financial intrigues or even misinformation – are survivable by a government with a generally popular profile, and which does not preach. Hypocrisy and hardship make the public less forgiving.

Where Major had urged us to go ‘Back to Basics’ in a conference speech before financial and sexual scandal engulfed his government, the Lib Dems had boldly made ‘broken promises’ the theme of a major party political broadcast in 2010. Blair had survived allegations of altering health policies in exchange for donations from Formula 1 President Bernie Ecclestone by insisting he was ‘a pretty straight guy’ before being unable to find any WMDs in Iraq. Similarly, it is the contrast between the government’s severe restrictions on private life during lockdown and the image of the No 10 parties which adds salt to the wound. Throw in a cost-of-living crisis (or in earlier cases the ERM crash or the Austerity programme) and you have a perfect storm. The current government has only intensified public indignation by resisting acknowledgement of its errors, whether over Barnard Castle, Owen Patterson or most recently Chris Pincher.

It has been commonplace amongst government supporters to argue that the prime minister’s reputation ‘prices in’ his unconventional, rule-bending behaviour, and indeed known instances of this across his career did not deter the public from granting him a sizeable majority in 2019. But when the rule-breaker is also the rule-maker, and his government is presiding over falling living standards, the joke isn’t funny any more. And in political as in personal relations, once trust is lost, it is almost impossible to rebuild.