My wife recently received an email purporting to be from “Sir James Arthur Ratcliffe, Chief Executive of Ineo (sic)”. He thanked her for “her effort, sincerity and trust worthiness”, and a reward of $800,000 would soon be in her account; just as soon as she provided her bank details.

My first reaction was to laugh but, just in case she reads this, the bit about effort, sincerity and trust worthiness is spot on. Surely no one would fall for such a transparent scam. Yet, there must be, otherwise the scammers would have given up long ago. Less obvious scams proliferated during the lockdown and many will have received fake messages and calls from conmen (and women) claiming to be representing banks, utility companies and HMRC. The vulnerable are most at risk and sadly, some have been fleeced of significant sums.

The confidence trickster has a long and dishonourable history. The first recorded incident may be that reported in the New York Times in 1849 when William Thompson parted his victim from his watch through “gaining his confidence”. More spectacularly, in 1885, William McCloundy apparently sold the Brooklyn Bridge to a gullible mark for $50,000.

Unsolicited messages informing recipients of a windfall in return for their bank details, are nothing new. The Dundee Evening Post of 13 October 1900 reported the “Spanish Treasure Trick”, in which a letter posted in Barcelona, promised a map showing the location of treasure buried in Barbados in exchange for £600. It appears a local clergyman fell for the ruse.

Around the same time, Pall Mall magazine warned of tricksters “who worked themselves into your confidence and having done so, dispose of you”. Most perceptively, the writer describes the “lack of empathy or pity” of the “average confidence man” for his victims. In more recent times, that lack of empathy has featured prominently in psychological studies of confidence tricksters. They conclude the con man/woman is set apart by a lack of moral compass and an amoral belief in the Machiavellian dictum that the ends justify the means. Their heartless actions are entirely for their own benefit and often justified through a misplaced sense of entitlement.

The most successful tricksters are instinctive psychologists. They can identify the frailties that make some more vulnerable to the con trick than others. They zero in on weaknesses such as misplaced trust, gullibility, greed, vanity, fear and naivety. They traffic in hope over rationality and can be found in most areas of commercial and public life.

The saying there’s one born every minute, seems particularly true when the unwary are tempted by too good-to-be-true “opportunities”. For example, the Ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford appealed in equal measure to greed and naivety. Donald Trump was associated with an assortment of questionable business deals and seemed almost proud to proclaim himself, “The king of debt.” His Trump University was shrouded in a mist of alleged financial irregularity and in 2016, fellow Republican Marco Rubio went as far as to call Mr Trump a “con artist”.

It’s not just in US business and politics that there’s a narrow line between a “want of truth” and the outright con. Of course, it’s unparliamentary to call a Westminster opponent a liar, even at Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s a pity Denis Healy isn’t still around to ask the Speaker, “What is the parliamentary expression closest to the meaning of the word “liar””?

In 2013 the Speaker reprimanded David Cameron for calling Ed Miliband a “con man”. Pots and kettles spring to mind. David Miliband once accused Mr Cameron of “putting the con into Conservative”, although the barb could easily have been directed at the current incumbent. A politician becomes a con artist when he or she lies beyond the norm deemed acceptable even in politics. Few political con men are true believers, simply opportunists on the make.

The prime minister offers a one-man case study. It’s doubtful if Mr Johnson was ever a convinced Brexiteer until it afforded him the opportunity to become Tory leader and prime minister. As every conman worth his salt knows, playing on people’s hopes, fears and gullibility are sure-fire winners. Mr Johnson and Mr Farage morphed into soi -disant outsiders taking on the “Establishment” on behalf of the people. The sunlit uplands, taking back control, the threat of immigration and free movement of labour were meat and drink to the accomplished charlatan. Its successful reprise in the 2019 General Election brought down Labour’s so-called red wall. If we overlook “Vote No to remain in the EU”, it was probably the most successful con in British political history.

The lack of empathy that psychologists have identified is clearly visible in other members of Mr Johnson’s cabinet. Ms Patel appears unphased by the daily tragedies occurring in the English Channel. Ms Coffey tells those affected by the ending of Universal Credit up lift, they need only work an extra couple of hours to make up the difference. Those living in the former Labour heartlands and who fell for Tory blandishments in 2019 are likely to be the principal losers.

Yet, despite it all, the “Good Old Boris” bandwagon continues to roll. Psychologists in the US noted that many investors defrauded by Madoff, continued to view him in a positive light. They concluded the victims didn’t want to admit to themselves and others that they had been fleeced. There’s probably similar reluctance amongst those conned by misleading posters and the big red bus in 2016. In the American west, snake oil salesmen were tarred and feathered and ridden out of town. Denis Healy would doubtless be asking what would be the nearest parliamentary equivalent.

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