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Tony Blair and Boris Johnson: A simple morality tale about western values

Blair's lies led to an illegal war with hundreds of thousands of deaths and we give him our highest honour. Johnson lies about a party and will pay a heavy price. This is modern Britain
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (C) looks on while former prime ministers Gordon Brown (L) and Tony Blair (R) stand behind during the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, London, 14 November 2021 (AFP)

Two weeks ago, American entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of criminally defrauding investors out of $700m. She faces up to 20 years in jail.

In sharp contrast, Tony Blair has just been awarded one of the most coveted honours to which any British citizen can aspire - the Queen has made him a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

Of course, it is right that Holmes should be punished. Her wrongdoing cost investors a great deal of money. But her actions did not lead to bloodshed. 

Britain has made a statement that it does not regard Blair’s misdemeanours as serious. Indeed it has rewarded him

True, her despicable conduct may have allegedly been the catalyst for the death of one former employee.

But the lies which Blair and his government told about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq set the foundation for hundreds of thousands of deaths in an illegal war, the terrible consequences of which are felt to this day.

Blair rubs shoulders with world leaders and continues to be treated with reverence in the mainstream media. He has received the accolade of the Garter, outranked in precedence only by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross - both awards for supreme bravery.

Britain has made a statement that it does not regard Blair’s misdemeanours as serious. Indeed it has rewarded him.

And not just Britain and Blair. The West more generally. In the United States, George W Bush, who led his country into the Iraq war, is treated as some kind of a national treasure.

Useful comparisons

By contrast, the West regards Holmes’s financial crime with horror.

A simple morality tale that tells you everything you want to know about western values.

This brings me on to Boris Johnson, the embattled British prime minister.

Like Blair, he has - so far - been exempt from the rules which ordinary people cheerfully obey.

Tony Blair can never escape his role in the Iraq disaster
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The systematic disregard displayed by Johnson for the rules of conduct which have been treated with deep seriousness by the vast majority of the British population lies at the heart of the current political crisis

He has repeatedly lied about the Covid pandemic - and much besides. I set out the squalid details in granular detail here. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that under Johnson's deceitful and negligent government, Britain has suffered one of the highest global Covid death rates. 

There are many useful comparisons to be made between Johnson and Tony Blair. 

"Call me Tony” Blair was widely known by his first name as PM - as is Johnson.  

Blair foreshadowed Johnson's hostility towards the rule of law and contempt of parliament and the civil service. 

Both enjoyed the backing of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch (by coincidence Murdoch also burned his fingers on Elizabeth Holmes). Both prime ministers, Johnson in particular, have come to be associated with a collapse of public standards.

Both have been accused of selling peerages, though only Blair was investigated by the Metropolitan police

Both allowed political attacks on any outside figure who sought to enforce high standards. Blair allies turned viciously on Standards Commissioner Elizabeth Filkin. Johnson launched a parallel attack on Commissioner Kathryn Stone, at one stage attempting to dismantle the system itself. 

Who is worse, Blair or Johnson?

I have written books about the lies uttered by both men. In 2005, I published The Rise of Political Lying, much of it dedicated to exposing the lies and falsehoods told by Blair and allies in connection with Iraq.  

Last year, prompted by the volume of lies told by the Johnson government, I wrote The Assault on Truth, an analysis of the culture of deception in Johnson’s Downing Street.

US President George W Bush (R) awards former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, Washington, DC, 13 January 2009
US President George W Bush (R) awards former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, Washington, DC, 13 January 2009 (AFP)

Who is worse, Blair or Johnson?

Let’s pray in aid to the great Christian theologian Saint Augustine, who divided liars into two categories.

There were those (regarded by Augustine as more forgivable) who lied for a purpose. More reprehensible, he thought, was the one who “loves to lie and passes his time in the joy of lying”. 

Blair uttered his falsehoods for a purpose - getting elected, making the case for the Iraq War. More and more I am coming to the conclusion that Johnson often simply lies for the pleasure of it.

When Johnson is driven from office, and it won’t be long now, he will be the first British prime minister to leave in disgrace

I’ve noticed a fellow feeling between the two men. Blair has refused to follow current Labour leader Keir Starmer and call for Johnson's resignation. In this article in The New Statesmen, Blair echoed Johnson talking points. 

I now think there may be one other difference.

Unlike Blair, Johnson will end up paying a heavy price for his lies. 

When Johnson is driven from office, and it won’t be long now, he will be the first British prime minister to leave in disgrace. 

Johnson, I predict, will ultimately be seen as a conman or a fraudster rather than a politician. 

That means that to understand him, it will be necessary to look outside politics. I predict that he will be regarded with the same shudder of horror as Robert Maxwell or Enron boss Kenneth Lay

International comparisons

There are many questions to be asked about the funding of the Conservative Party and the handling of public contracts during the Johnson period in office. Until now - as the aftermath of the Iraq war shows - the British state has chosen not to examine misconduct in high office.

Yet there are intriguing international comparisons to be made. If I was Johnson, they would alarm me. In France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of illegal campaign financing. In Israel, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently negotiating a plea bargain in regards to his corruption trial, which involves accounts of bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Something like this may yet await Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson's departure is only a matter of time
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Of course, we do not know all the facts, and there is no hard evidence that Johnson has broken the law, although he is already in breach of numerous codes of conduct

But there must be investigations. Will the British system continue to show leniency to political leaders who sail close to the wind? 

Johnson will be hoping and praying that it does. But the future is bleak for him in any case. He faces a future as a disgraced former prime minister. 

Expect a Johnson myth to emerge - a brave leader destroyed by dark establishment forces, very like Donald Trump.

Mainly, he will be treated as a pariah, especially by his former allies and government colleagues. 

Will he end up joining Blair with the Order of the Garter (normally automatic for all former prime ministers)? That won't happen.

As far as the rest of us are concerned, let’s hope that Britain can learn the lessons from this shaming period in our national history and start afresh. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.