It is often said that the supreme authority for judging politicians is the court of public opinion. While it is true that electoral success is the key to power in a democracy, winning votes and being right are not the same thing.

Boris Johnson is betting heavily that his appeal in the public arena will override questions that critics have raised about his integrity. He was evasive in parliament on Wednesday when asked by Sir Keir Starmer to clarify who first paid for a controversial Downing Street refurbishment. Mr Johnson insisted that he had settled the account, leaving open the possibility that he did so only once other arrangements – such as a private donation via the Conservative party – proved unsustainable. The money trail and whether it was properly declared is now the subject of investigation by the Electoral Commission.

Mr Johnson dismissed the Labour leader’s questions as a “bizarre” fixation on topics that “most people would find irrelevant”. But the agitated tone indicated more discomfort than might be expected if the inquiry were really so marginal. The prime minister understands well enough that the criticism relates not to his choice of decor, but to a pattern of dissimulation and disregard for rules.

If the facts are simple and harmless, there should be no difficulty or hesitation in making them public. But transparency is not a reflex known to this government. One illuminating feature of the feud with Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s estranged former strategist, is the impression it leaves that serious matters of state have been routinely conducted by text message and expedited by leaks.

That helps explain, in part, why management of the pandemic through most of last year came across as chaotic and plagued by indecision, and why policy in so many areas has been characterised by U-turns. There has been a lack of coherence and direction that starts at the very top. There has also been a casualness with regard to due diligence that appears to extend from the procurement of medical equipment to the handling of political donations.

Voters’ interest in these things (or lack thereof) is obviously significant, but success in the polls is not the only factor in evaluating a government’s performance. It is important to understand how Britain has been governed, not just with a view to holding ministers accountable for any mistakes, but to minimise the likelihood of those mistakes being repeated by some future administration.

That, ultimately, is the case for a full public inquiry into the national response to the coronavirus pandemic. Given the scale of the task, covering nearly every aspect of public life in a tumultuous year, and the volume of material to be considered, such an inquiry would need to start its work immediately. Its purpose would be to establish truth, not mete out partisan punishment. That truth is a valuable resource in unsafe hands for as long as it is hoarded in the memories of the key players, or saved on the phones of Downing Street aides. It must be compelled into the open, in witness testimony under oath and mandatory disclosure of evidence, using powers bestowed by the Inquiries Act.

Mr Johnson might expect electoral exoneration, but history will remember his prevarications and misjudgments throughout the pandemic, alongside their fatal consequences. Conservative MPs also follow that verdict when deciding how loyal they should be to their leader. Reprieve at the polls is a powerful political argument, but it is not the only metric by which prime ministers are ultimately judged. Honesty in public life matters regardless of whether dishonesty is sometimes effective in politics. Debts to the truth can be deferred, but eventually they must be paid.

This content first appear on the guardian

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