The Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently under fire for allegedly attending multiple parties at Number 10 Downing Street during the height of lockdown restrictions, in breach of his own government’s rules. He has mostly been evasive about this, in an attempt to ride out the wave of public outrage, and also because he doesn’t want to incriminate himself as this is subject to parliamentary and police investigations.
At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday we almost got an apology, albeit couched in a passive tense that carefully did not implicate himself directly: parties ‘were happening’ and mistakes ‘were made’. The leader of the opposition Kier Starmer was having none of it, and went on the attack, culminating in this charge:
‘Can’t the Prime Minister see why the British public think he is lying through his teeth?’
This caused uproar on the Conservative benches, even among MPs who had become lukewarm in their support for their flailing leader. They appealed to the Speaker that Starmer had used ‘unparliamentary language’ in accusing the PM of lying, and urged him to make the Labour leader retract his statement. The Speaker, however, noted that he was merely reporting what the British public thought, and allowed the remark to stand. (Starmer the lawyer was clever enough not to break the rules.)
It is one of the House of Commons’s many curious rules that you are not allowed to accuse another member of lying. To do so, or to accuse another member of being drunk for example, would be to impugn the honour of another member, so is cause for the Speaker to intervene. Last year the Labour MP Dawn Butler was required to leave the chamber after calling the Prime Minister a liar and refusing to retract the remark. Johnson of course has form in this respect.
As with so many things in the British political system, this rule has its roots in history. It dates from the early modern period, when all MPs were elite men, and when elite men subscribed to a strict code of honour. There are several instances where an exchange between MPs (although not usually in the house itself) was regarded as a challenge to honour, which resulted in a duel. In the 1800s, Lord Castlereagh and George Canning had a dispute that culminated in Castlereagh challenging Canning to a duel. Canning accepted, despite never having fired a pistol in his life, and the famously good shot Castlereagh wounded him in the leg. Honour was satisfied but their disputes rumbled on.
The rule therefore exists in order to head off such conflicts. MPs have to be careful what they say about one another in the House, and the Speaker will intervene if they aren’t. Other speaking regulations seek to depersonalise conflicts between members, with the effect of dialling down potential flashpoints, and creating an atmosphere where MPs can question one another robustly without coming to blows. They cannot refer to one another by name, for example, instead referring to their office as a representative for a particular constituency, or a holder of an government position.
For a long time this system has broadly worked. As with many things in the British constitution, the attitude was ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But something changed in British politics in the wake of the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016. Emotive falsehoods were spread, and the architects of the Leave campaign subsequently became the government. The lying has continued (along with other political sins such as corruption and disrespect for the rule of law) and many commentators have bemoaned the current moral condition of British political life.
There are currently petitions calling for the parliamentary rules to be changed, to make lying in parliament illegal. It is already against the rules to mislead the house, but while the archaic rule about not being able to call out lying remains on the books, it is unlikely that the current political class will stop doing it.
Enough is enough. You can’t have parliamentary rules to protect MPs’ honour when MPs no longer abide by such honour codes. In the nineteenth century they made sense, because public men were expected to live by the standards of independence, candour and public spirit, or face serious consequences. But when you have a Prime Minister who is clearly lying (the parties were in his own garden) then he should not be able to hide behind archaic rules.