My desperate bid to match Boris Johnson’s colossal lies | Stewart Lee

The foreign secretary is struggling to get the attention he once earned from lesser falsehoods

When Boris Johnson announced in a press conference on Thursday his intent to fly to the moon in a basket carried by enormous swans, as part of an ongoing quest to seek out new post-Brexit trading partners outside the EU, it seemed the logical end point of a political career characterised by the propagation of elephantine falsehoods. And yet no lie is too big it seems and Johnson endures.

Any half-decent journalist would have destroyed Johnson’s moon-swan lies immediately, but his Friday morning interview with Nick Robinson on Radio 4 displayed the feeble indulgence we have come to expect from the gumless Today programme.

Johnson told Robinson he was looking forward to meeting the moon king, Irdonozur, who he thought was “exactly the sort of person we should be in business with”, and Robinson didn’t even feel the need to point out that no such lunar monarch exists.

Robinson didn’t even intervene when Johnson declared that he wasn’t “the least bit scared of moon-picaninnies or moon-bumboys for that matter”, and that he would be taking his friend the convicted fraudster and gold smuggler Darius Guppy to the moon with him, and that Darius would have any disobedient moon-picaninnies and moon-bumboys “knocked to the ground” and covered in horse manure.

Footage on CBBC’s Newsround later, of Johnson standing by a bus emblazoned with the legend “Let’s fly to the moon in a swan-drawn basket and knock the moon-bumboys to the ground and cover them in horse manure”, barely even a raised eyebrow from presenter Ricky Boleto, who seemed stricken with a terrible ennui beyond his years at the very thought of more of Johnson’s colossal and time-consuming lies.

Meanwhile, predictable newspaper cartoons slung the familiar image of the crash-helmeted Johnson, waving flags while suspended from a zip wire, beneath a flock of soaring swans.

Even seasoned political observers finally find themselves asking: what on earth is Johnson playing at? Some think the answer lies in the Dead Cat Strategy, pioneered by the Tories’ former attack dog Lynton Crosby.

Crosby’s main contribution to political discourse has been the idea that a massive distraction, such as throwing a dead cat on a table or announcing your intention to fly to the moon with Darius Guppy in a swan-drawn basket, will divert public attention from some ongoing political disaster, such as the entire last 18 months.

Some cynics even suggest that the public disgrace of Johnson’s crony Toby Young was actually dead-cat driven. Did the Conservative media machine maintain Young’s implausible career only so as to have a dead cat ready to fling on the table when they needed one? Was Toby Young the Lee Harvey Oswald of the failing Brexit negotiations?

I’m not sure that Johnson’s pathological dishonesty is quite that calculated. I suspect Johnson liked the attention that his lies got him. But suddenly he is being trounced in the funny toff stakes by Jacob Tree-Frog and his Brexit lies – the £350m a week for the NHS, the fabled “cake and eat it” trade deal – are dissolving like David Davis in a hail of hot facts.

So Johnson is having to mouth ever more vast lies to get the attention he once earned from lesser falsehoods, like a veteran motorcycle stuntman, long past his peak, incrementally driven towards an audience-maintaining jump over a massive lake of sharks that he knows will finally kill him.

On my desk is a stack of commemorative Brexit coins, price £4.99 each. I ordered them from a Brexiter on eBay in a moment of mean-spiritedness, because they are emblazoned with the misspelt slogan “I voted to get back our sovereign independance”. The tragedy of it, the black black comedy of the thing.

Illustration by David Foldvari.
Illustration by David Foldvari. Illustration: David Foldvari

But the coins made me remember the act I did on the fledgling comedy circuit, back in the 1980s, and how it related to the nuclear escalation of Johnson’s weaponised lies. Older comedy fans may remember the early days of “Alternative” comedy, when bills weren’t simply twentysomething standups in trousers remembering recent cultural ephemera.

Back then, those pub back-room bills featured a host of absurd “spesh” acts; the Amazing Mr Smith, who sang satirical songs with his head in a birdcage; Steve Murray, who dismembered teddy bears while doing an impression of Tommy Cooper; the Ice Man, a favourite of mine, who stood on stage with a big block of ice, describing how and why it was melting; and the late Malcolm Hardee who, among other things, could make his testicles look like various British wartime politicians.

My own spesh involved me stuffing, or giving the impression of stuffing, a succession of coins of various foreign currencies up my back passage, while dressed in a tutu and playing the bodhrán. “And now ladies and gentlemen, the Icelandic 50 kroner coin, the 50 kroner. Here we go…”

I was starting to make a name for myself, although admittedly that name was Roger Rectum Currency. Then suddenly, sometime around 1985, along came the uber-clown Chris Lynam, who launched actual lit fireworks from his actual anus, and now a man pretending to put yen into his wasn’t impressive any more. I soon switched to straight standup, as it happened a more lucrative, but arguably less dignified, art form.

Suddenly, his lies no longer igniting the public imagination like they once did, Johnson himself is Roger Rectum Currency in his managed decline, needing to draw the public eye with ever more extravagant lies.

And maybe I am facing a similar dilemma. The political situation has been so stupid now, for so long, it seems beyond satire. In print, and on stage, I reach for ever more desperate methods to mock it. And then my eye falls on that pile of commemorative British “independance” coins. And I realise I may have stumbled across the answer. I’m sure I have that tutu somewhere.

The jazz-noise album Bristol Fashion by capri-batterie with Stewart Lee is available to download at Content Provider continues to tour and will finally end on 19, 20 and 23 April at the Royal Festival Hall, London


Stewart Lee

The GuardianTramp

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