The Tory Lie Machine

Aided and abetted by an anti-Labour media, the Tories have been on an unprecedented lying streak. If they find they can get away with this kind of mendacity and still win an election, there will be no limit to their willingness to lie in government.

Boris Johnson, UK prime minister and Conservative Party leader, launches the Conservative Party Welsh Manifesto at Bangor-on-Dee Racecourse on November 25, 2019 in Wrexham, United Kingdom. Richard Stonehouse / Getty Images

The Tory manifesto was launched on Sunday, with little fanfare and very little detail. At eight thousand words, forty-three pages shorter than Labour’s offering, the party not only expected much less scrutiny of its plans — their costings document was ten pages to Labour’s forty-four — but strategically planned to minimize media scrutiny, with a weekend launch that avoided coverage in the papers and Sunday political programs, and with reporters waiting hours for the downloadable link.

Despite being bereft of any new or interesting policies, simply stating the Conservatives would “get Brexit done” and inject a smidgen of public spending to ameliorate the billions they had slashed in a decade of austerity, the numbers and central messages quickly came unstuck. The National Health Service (NHS) has come ahead of Brexit in many polls of voters’ concerns, so the Tories promised “50,000 new nurses” in the NHS. After a minute or two of scrutiny, journalists discovered the figure included “retaining” 19,000 current nurses rather than creating 50,000 new jobs and training the nurses, prompting the party to continue to try to define the word “more” in a barely believable example of political spin.

That analysis and the Tory response was hardly surprising: the Conservatives and their campaign team have become arrogantly accustomed to the minimal scrutiny their policies and candidates receive in contrast to Labour, and when challenged, from the leader down to ordinary members, they simply lie.

The fact that broadcasting rules requiring more equitable media coverage during election campaigns predictably result in Labour rising in the polls has become a widely accepted phenomenon demonstrating the right-leaning bias of most of the media. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour have found themselves scrutinized and attacked more than any opposition party could reasonably expect. To counter such an effect, Labour’s manifesto must be watertight and fully costed, and yet it still comes under more intense analysis, criticism, and attack. This climate explains why the Conservatives feel so comfortable passing out a barely-thought-out manifesto written by a lobbyist who has promoted Cuadrilla, Amazon, and Facebook, in contrast to Labour’s hefty and carefully drawn-up document.

But this election has seen the pathological dishonesty run riot. With Boris Johnson as leader — a man who has been fired for lying, who is exposed constantly for lying, who lies when asked to apologize for his lies — the party has reveled in misleading the public. Its deliberate doctoring of videos of Labour MPs Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips to discredit the party was criticized by the Left, but a still more brazen move drew condemnation from journalists at many outlets: during the first televised debate between Corbyn and Johnson, the Conservative press office Twitter account renamed itself “Factcheck UK,” changing its header and avatar, and tweeted various “facts” promoting the Tories and attacking Labour. Challenged about the move, foreign secretary Dominic Raab replied, “No one gives a toss,” but Twitter threatened “decisive action” if the party tried the stunt again. Days later, a Tory candidate who had come to prominence for saying “nuisance tenants” should be put into labor camps was caught out after convincing a friend to pose in front of a reporter as a swing voter who had decided to vote for him.

Tory laziness and dishonesty is helped by poor reporting: twice, the BBC have apologized for errors in video editing that made Boris Johnson appear better — running an old clip of him laying a wreath at a cenotaph instead of the actual footage of him laying one upside down this year, and editing out derisory audience laughter during the last television debate. On the day a report warned that child poverty would reach a sixty-year high under the Tories, the BBC carried a quote claiming that child poverty had actually fallen by 750,000 under the Conservatives, which the network subsequently had to delete. The BBC are often accused of bias by people across the political spectrum; the mounting evidence of straight errors or handling Conservative claims with overt credulity does nothing to counter those claims from the Left.

The Tories know they can lie because there are little to no consequences, and the media will broadly back them up or critique them far less severely than they would if Labour were to engage in the same behavior. For Labour, election campaigns are an uphill struggle against an aggressive media largely funded by Tory backers, even before considering the vast financial interests poured into blocking a Labour government that might defang rapacious companies and unscrupulous employers.

Labour have managed to get an unprecedented number of people out campaigning on doorsteps — hundreds on some days — and spearheaded an impressive social media campaign that has helped cut through media bias. The party and activists have worked hard to get as many unregistered voters signed up as possible, including homeless people and especially the young, who are often unregistered but skew heavily Labour: on Monday, voter registration spiked by 236 percent after grime artist Stormzy endorsed Corbyn and Labour. The Conservatives have barely encouraged people to register.

The task of the Conservatives is merely to reach the end of the campaign without any major controversies exploding. Labour have a mountain to climb but are scaling it well: the polls are closing slightly faster than they did in the 2017 general election. But if the Conservatives win, proving they can get away with this behavior in an election, there will be little to prevent their reaching despotic levels of dishonesty in government — and few politicians are as well equipped to accomplish that feat as Boris Johnson.