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LONDON — The person at the top sets the tone — and Boris Johnson’s loose relationship with the truth is starting to trickle down.
For weeks the U.K. government has been gripped by a scandal about whether parties were held in the prime ministerial Downing Street residence amid the pandemic, and whether Johnson knew those parties breached the lockdown rules he himself set.
The PM and his aides insist he had no idea that rules might have been broken. It could be a resignation matter if he did.
When reports of parties first emerged, Downing Street aides sought to obfuscate with claims they did not “recognize these reports, and all COVID rules have been followed.” After a video of aides joking about a get-together was leaked, Johnson continued to insist he was assured there was no party and appointed a top civil servant to investigate.
When it then emerged that the top civil servant in question, Simon Case, also attended parties — reports that had been outright denied by his department — he too was forced to stand down from the probe.
Some Whitehall insiders fear Johnson — who began his career fabricating newspaper quotes and was previously sacked from a frontbench role for lying about an affair — is having a corrosive effect on the whole machine.
A serving senior civil servant, when asked about officials defending lies, said: “Under this government it’s gotten much, much worse.” The person insisted some departments are less honest than others, and that some in Johnson’s team had been “throwing the civil service code to the wind.”
That code, treated as Whitehall’s bible, states that officials must act with integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. But all of that becomes much more difficult when the person at the top of the chain appears to adhere to different rules — or none at all.
Alexandra Hall Hall, who after decades in government quit a senior U.K. diplomatic post in December 2019 with a blast at Johnson’s Brexit policy, said it was “inevitable” the prime minister’s relationship with the truth “will have infected the rest of the system.”
A siege mentality can set in when the government is under extreme fire. Officials, meant to stay far from the political fray, can end up parroting the claims that come from the top, genuinely unaware of whether they are conduits for lies or the truth.
“We’ve all let standards slip a little bit,” the serving official said. But they added: “I think the blatant lies do come from the political side more than us.”
‘Close to the wind’
Others are quick to defend civil servants while arguing that an unreliable political team at the top can make things more difficult.
They say the ongoing scandals, kept alive through obfuscation, are a distraction for decision-makers who should be focused on improving things for the public.
“If the prime minister has lied, the main effect of that is to put other ministers and officials in a very difficult position,” said a former senior official. But they said: “I don’t think it automatically infects the whole government machine and turns the machine into a machine of lies.”
Civil servants will need to work out how to avoid repeating outright lies, while also making sure not to disown the PM, the person explained. It’s a subtle dance.
Some get into scrapes while battling what’s seen as a wider looseness with the truth from Downing Street. Johnson’s top standards adviser had to revisit an investigation about how a refurbishment of the prime minister’s flat was paid for after text messages later emerged that Johnson claimed not to have remembered.
Some see a wider trend toward politicizing the impartial civil service. They point to former MPs and allies (and even lovers) handed official jobs at public expense. Such appointments risk eroding trust in the whole government operation.
“The machine has been subverted,” the former official said.
But fears about the politicization of the civil service are nothing new, with governments of all stripes accused of the same for decades. For example, there was concern when former Prime Minister Tony Blair handed his top media adviser Alastair Campbell the power to direct civil servants.
“I don’t think that in terms of the bleeding into Whitehall that it’s necessarily far worse than previous governments,” said Alex Thomas, an expert at the Institute for Government and a former senior civil servant himself.
Indeed, a former political adviser who served under Johnson said civil servants felt Downing Street was “prone to flying close to the wind,” but that “people would say exactly the same thing about No. 10 under Blair. People have always taken what comes out of No. 10 with a pinch.”
The same person noted, however, that even if government officials are honest, a view among journalists and the public of the opposite is just as harmful, since the British system is based on trust: “If a perception has taken hold that the truth doesn’t matter and lying is an everyday occurrence, then that is damaging to the perception.”
To some of Johnson’s critics, it has become gospel that he isn’t straight with the public. A viral social media video challenging a host of his claims has racked up more than 40 million views and is emblematic of the critique — often bundled up with general opposition to Brexit.
That perception matters abroad too, said Hall Hall, the former diplomat: “If our government acquires a reputation for lying to our own people, our allies will also start to question how much they can trust what we are saying. So the ramifications go far beyond the immediate issue of lying.”
But some of those who’ve worked with him view Johnson very differently and see him as an antidote to typical political spin.
Another former Johnson colleague told POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast last year that the debate over the prime minister’s own truth-telling was “too nuanced for our increasingly rabid age,” and that some of his detractors were by now unwilling to have their minds changed.
“As I see it, he is more authentic and profoundly honest about who he is, what he isn’t and what he wants to do than almost any other politician,” the ex-colleague said. “But like all of them, he has said things that turn out not to have been 100 percent accurate and his critics will never see beyond that.”
Press team pressure
There is a particular concern in Whitehall about civil servants who have to deal directly with the press as scandals rumble on. Journalists are sure government spokespeople, who are meant to be impartial, have been part of the problem when it comes to being straight about the parties. But there have been other scrapes too.
For example, political journalist Anna Mikhailova took aim at civil service press officers in the trade department after she was fed a claim that later turned out to be untrue. She said some impartial officials were starting to “use their position to obfuscate and mislead.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “All civil servants carry out their role in line with the civil service code.”
Thomas, from the Institute for Government, said departmental press officers were feeling the pressure. “Some of the strains around ethics and standards that this administration has found itself in has put a particular strain on the civil service, and particularly some of those that have to present information,” he explained.
“Of course, you’re in the bunker together and you want to do your best,” he added. “But one of the reassurances that the public should have about ethics and standards in government is that civil servants will act within the law and within the standards that are set in the civil service code.”
Officials should feel able to push back against a minister who wants to be loose with the truth, Thomas said — but that can be tough, and depends on the characters involved: “The tone that leaders set clearly shapes what is considered to be acceptable or not acceptable.”
The situation has already led to finger-pointing about the perceived obsequiousness of the current Cabinet, many of whom are staunch Johnson allies.
One former minister said the civil service had “held the line as best they can” but that lies had “bled across” the top ministerial ranks. “It’s almost like the truth has lost its value as a commodity,” the person said. “If you’re a stickler for the truth or integrity, you’re a bit of an outlier now.”
The former minister argued that nothing will change while the top ranks of ministers keep their powder dry. “All the secretaries of state want to impress him,” they said of Johnson. “And if you’re going to impress an individual who totally devalues the truth then you’re going to take part in that process as well.”
Downing Street did not respond by publication time.
Jack Blanchard contributed reporting.