Peter Oborne

Brexit, and the return of political lying

In their EU campaign, the Chancellor and Prime Minister have put dirty tricks back at the heart of government

Brexit, and the return of political lying
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Sir John Chilcot’s report into the Iraq invasion, due to be published on 6 July, is expected to highlight the novel structure of government created by New Labour following its landslide victory of 1997. As Tony Blair started to make the case for war, he began to distort the shape and nature of British government in several ways — the most notable being the deliberate debasement of the traditional idea of a neutral, disinterested civil service.

Under Blair, civil servants were told to concern themselves less with the substance than the presentation of policy. They were informed that their loyalty lay more with the government of the day, less with the British state. This had dramatic effects. Some officials (especially the ambitious ones) abandoned the Whitehall tradition of caution, astringency and integrity. They ceased to treat information as neutral and value-free. Instead, facts became malle-able building blocks towards the creation of a wider ‘narrative’ to be discarded or rearranged to fit the requirements of the party in power.

All of this allowed Tony Blair to mis-represent the intelligence on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. This meant that Britain could invade Iraq on the basis that Saddam presented a devastating threat to his neighbours — even though we possessed no evidence at all to prove it, and every reason to doubt that this was true.

When David Cameron became Prime Minister six years ago, there was every reason to suppose that he would end the abuses of the Blair/Brown era. Cameron made a show of reinventing cabinet government, and boasted that new systems were in place. For the first few years of the coalition, there were grounds for believing that these assurances were sincere. This is no longer the case. David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, have returned to the cronyism and abuse of due process which defined the Tony Blair years.

Lying and cheating are, once again, commonplace in the heart of government. There was a particularly ugly example at Prime Minister’s Questions last month. Cameron named Suliman Gani, an imam from Tooting, as an ‘IS supporter’ in order to damage Sadiq Khan, Tooting MP and Labour candidate for London mayor, by association. Several senior Tories repeated the baseless slander in the weeks that followed. They, and eventually the Prime Minister himself, were obliged to utter grudging semi--apologies — but only after the mayoral contest was over and the damage had been done.

Yet more troubling was Cameron’s widely ridiculed appropriation late last year of 70,000 ‘moderate’ rebel allies to make the case for bombing Syria. In his speech to Parliament, the Prime Minister invoked ‘our independent Joint Intelligence Committee’ to justify his controversial figure. This was a blatant repeat of Tony Blair’s politicisation of the same committee 13 years ago.

The alarming truth is that Whitehall integrity is in collapse again. Cameron, who once boasted that he was ‘heir to Blair’, has taken and refined the techniques of dishonesty that New Labour invented. This time, however, the most serious instances of this abuse do not involve foreign intelligence. They concern Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

During the run-up to the Iraq invasion, intelligence officers would hand ministers an estimate, an allegation, a straw in the wind, in certain cases (the 45-minute claim being the most notorious example) an outright fabrication. Tony Blair’s office would then bless it with the imprimatur of a government assessment, usually employing vague wording — in the hope that the media would repeat and then amplify the message.

Cameron and Osborne have become masters of this kind of politics. ‘We’re paying down Britain’s debts,’ said David Cameron in 2013. This was a straight lie: the national debt was soaring as he spoke. ‘When I became Chancellor,’ observed Osborne last year, ‘debt was piling up.’ True —  and he has been piling it up ever since, even now rising by £135 million a day. This kind of deception works: polls show that only a minority of voters realise that the national debt is still rising.

George Osborne has now converted the Treasury into a partisan tool to sell the referendum, exactly as Tony Blair used the Joint Intelligence Committee to make the case for war against Iraq. Before becoming Chancellor, Osborne was critical of Gordon Brown’s Treasury, and rightly so, because it had been so heavily politicised. He rightly stripped the Treasury of its forecasting function and created an independent Office for Budget Responsibility — an encouraging sign that he was determined to avoid the culture of deceit which was such a notable feature of the Brown/Blair era.

It is therefore very troubling that the Office for Budget Responsibility has not come anywhere near the two Treasury dossiers that make the case for the EU. It’s easy to see why — they would point out straight away that the Chancellor has been engaged in fabrication. For example, let’s take a hard look at how he induced Treasury officials to endorse his central claim that families would be £4,300 ‘worse off’ if Britain left the European Union.

The main technique that Osborne used was his conflating GDP with household income — and referring to ‘GDP per household’, a phrase that has never been used in any Budget. As the Chancellor used to argue, GDP is a misleading indicator which can be artificially inflated by immigration. Immigration of 5 per cent may well raise GDP by the same amount, but nobody would be any better off. ‘GDP per capita is a much better indicator,’ said Osborne when newly in office. He made no mention at all of GDP per capita when launching the Brexit documents published by the Treasury.

Then, in an audacious innovation not even deployed by New Labour, Osborne and his allies have been briefing the media and touring the broadcasting studios before releasing the Brexit documents, even under embargo. This means that journalists cannot challenge his headline figures and calculations. By the time the documents have been published, Osborne (or, in this week’s case, Business Secretary Sajid Javid) are nowhere to be found. This technique makes deception easier by keeping scrutiny to a minimum.

Had a company director presented a prospectus on the London Stock Exchange on the same basis as the Treasury case for Brexit, he — and his chairman, his accountants and advisers — would risk prosecution for fraud. The government insists on the truth being told in the City, demanding standards it never applies to itself. To mislead investors about a pension is quite rightly illegal. But to mislead taxpayers about the trajectory of the national debt, or the real economic effects of leaving the European Union? Well, all’s fair in love, war and politics.

This is all bad luck on Tom Scholar, who has just taken over from Sir Nicholas Macpherson as permanent secretary to the Treasury. His first task in his new role has been to perform the same function for Osborne and Cameron which John Scarlett (as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee) carried out for Tony Blair. If anything, Scholar’s dossier is even dodgier than Scarlett’s.

But the same questions need to be asked in each case. Were there any protests from Treasury officials about the blatant politicisation of their department? If not, why not? What instructions were issued from ministers and special advisers? Why did civil servants agree to get involved in a political project of this kind?

The truth will doubtless come out in the end — but once the referendum is over, just as the truth about the Iraq dossier became known only after war was declared.

This level of deception has become normal in Cameron’s second term. Take jobs. During the election the Prime Minister claimed he would create two million new jobs in the life of the new parliament. We hear no more about that now. The forecast in the last Budget was 1.1 million jobs before 2020. Or take immigration. Cameron said he would bring it down below 100,000 a year. Yet the topic was never even raised in the Brexit negotiations — almost certainly this manifesto pledge was dropped at the insistence of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s entire referendum strategy now stands exposed as a monstrous deceit. On seven separate occasions, Cameron and Osborne insisted that they would rule nothing out and were open to backing Leave. These claims were exploded when the Daily Mail revealed that the Prime Minister was involved in secret negotiations with business leaders to support a Remain vote. And what of his pledge in the last Tory manifesto to ‘insist’ that EU immigrants would not be given benefits until they had been here for four years? Or that UK benefits would not be paid for children living abroad? He did not mean either pledge, as his renegotiation shows. The Tory manifesto itself now looks like a dodgy dossier.

Lies at the top have set the tone for mendacity below. The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has implausibly claimed that Inter-railing across Europe would become more difficult. Environment minister Rory Stewart suggested that endangered animals would become extinct, and trade minister Anna Soubry claimed on Any Questions? that all exports to Europe would ‘go down to almost absolutely zero’.

The Iraq War showed how easy it was for New Labour politicians to abuse the government machine. Their techniques have been reinvented by Cameron and Osborne. Like Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell in 2003, David Cameron and George Osborne seem not to believe that their arguments, honestly expressed, are strong enough to win the day. They are so determined to win the vote that they are preparing to do so on the back of a series of fictions: that the economy will submerge into recession; that World War III might break out; that family incomes will be slashed etc.

This involves an attack not just on truth but on democracy itself. Citizens have a right to form a fair and balanced judgment, and are therefore entitled to be informed about their political choices. Lying disempowers and therefore debases those who are lied to. Politicians who lie to voters deprive them of the ability to reach a well-informed decision. In doing so, they convert them into dupes.

That is what Tony Blair and New Labour did to take Britain to war in 2003, and what Osborne and Cameron are doing to keep Britain in Europe in next month’s vote. This is not just morally wrong, it is politically disastrous. Cameron has said that he wants to settle the European issue once and for all. He can only do that if he makes a fair and honest argument.

Peter Oborne is a columnist for the Daily Mail and author of The Rise of Political Lying. His Not The Chilcot Report was published this week.