| 7 mins read
A basic premise of the BBC’s long-running TV programme Would I Lie to You? is that contestants are rewarded for lying successfully. Commentators and colleagues have identified Boris Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative party as his prize for a similar talent. Indeed, Johnson was acknowledged by one of his former ministerial colleagues as being ‘the most accomplished liar in public office – perhaps the best liar ever to serve as Prime Minister’. And former Speaker John Bercow has ‘no doubt whatsoever that Johnson is in a league of his own’ in ‘repeatedly uttering falsehoods’ and making ‘demonstrably untruthful claims to parliament’.
But does Johnson’s general propensity to lie, and his specific inclination to lie to Parliament, matter? The answer is: yes. It matters for the public; it matters for the institution of parliament; and it matters, elementally, for parliamentary democracy in the UK.
Does the public care about lying?
Historically, MPs have tended to be distrusted by the British public. When citizens are asked whether they trust MPs in general to tell the truth, some 70 per cent of respondents answer 'no'. Yet, despite public expectations that MPs do not tell the truth there is a basic acceptance that politicians who tell lies should suffer some punitive consequences. Surveys conducted in 2021 revealed, specifically, that 86 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘politicians who lie should lose office’ (with 55 per cent strongly agreeing), and, generally, that the public clearly believed that MPs should abide by ethical standards and unethical behaviour should not go unchallenged.
Lying in the Commons
In the UK, not lying to parliament is a foundational principle of parliamentary government. The simple provision of accurate information to Parliament – ‘informatory accountability’ – is a prerequisite of ministerial, and especially prime ministerial, responsibility.
Indeed, correction of misleading or erroneous information by ministers in the Commons is expected to be corrected ‘at the earliest opportunity’, and Ministers who ‘knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister’.
In the first 30 months of Johnson’s premiership, direct linkage of the words ‘Prime Minister’, ‘lying’ or being a ‘liar’ were recorded in 18 instances on Hansard Online. In the preceding 40 years a total of only 23 such instances had been recorded. So, something changed upon Johnson’s entry into No 10 Downing Street.
What changed was Johnson’s proclivity for what might be termed ‘casual lying’, matched with an offhand style of delivery. Stylistically, Johnson has mastered the deployment of rapid-fire casual misrepresentations, conflations, and deceptions to promote his self-serving ‘boosterism’. In this sense, his technique in the Commons is akin to ‘drive-by lying’: firing-off a false or misleading assertion and then moving on speedily before it can be registered and formally challenged.
When Johnson’s untruthfulness was challenged by MPs in the House they encountered the paradox, captured succinctly in the words of Labour MP Dawn Butler, that parliamentary rules meant that MPs ‘get in trouble in [Westminster] for calling out the lie rather than for lying’. MPs also encountered Johnson’s obduracy in acknowledging or correcting his untruthful or misleading statements.
What can be done?
The traditional, and official, view within Westminster is that the use of existing procedures and the ‘persistence and initiative’ of MPs themselves provide the most appropriate way to uphold the principle that ministers are responsible for the accuracy of the information they provide to Parliament. Several parliamentary procedures – points of order, Early Day Motions, and debates on urgent questions, adjournment, or a substantive motion – provide mechanisms through which these obligations and expectations might be discharged. Yet, for all the ‘persistence and initiative’ of MPs in deploying these procedures to try to hold the PM to account for his casual lying, Johnson continued to lie and continued to refuse to correct his untruths in the first 30 months of his premiership.
In terms of what can be done, answers include: allowing Johnson to be ‘called out’ by MPs in the House; amending the process for recording prime-ministerial corrections so that non-ministerial MPs can request correction; enabling the research services of the House of Commons Library to conduct fact-checking of alleged inaccuracies in PM statements; or even developing institutional links with external fact-checking organisations. All these simple solutions would, however, require a fundamental reset of the rules, conventions and courtesies of the Commons.
That a reset might be necessary has been acknowledged by Speaker Hoyle in his acceptance that ‘long standing practices may change [in relation to accusations of lying] … if the House decided that it wanted a different approach’. Dawn Butler has called for ‘MPs of all parties who care for the truth … to get off their bums and demand change’. Former PM, John Major, believes that Parliament should act because it ‘had the power to do so’.
No matter how worthy, such calls miss the point: notions of a unified ‘political will’ in Westminster to address the ‘problem’ of Johnson’s lying rapidly splinter along party lines, and by the overriding fealty of majority party MPs to their prime minister.
In practice, therefore, the onus is on Conservative MPs. Yet, since 2019, they have clearly felt either beholden, cowed, or seduced by Johnson’s electoral appeal. They believe that particular lies rapidly fade from public view when the next misleading statement appears.
But their acceptance has been contingent both upon Johnson’s continuing electoral allure, and upon his capacity to speed away from any single untruth without becoming grid-locked in unrelenting scrutiny. Johnson’s handling of allegations of ‘Tory sleaze’ and ‘partygate’ in recent months has revealed Johnson to be gridlocked, in the words of one Conservative MP, in his own ‘obfuscation, prevarication, and evasion’.
When set against the intense ‘publicness’ of concern with ‘partygate’, the PM’s impressive record of accusations of lying in Parliament might not be regarded as a big deal. Yet, this would miss the fundamental point: ‘informatory accountability’ – the simple provision of accurate information to Parliament – is an elemental principle of parliamentary government in the UK. Not lying to Parliament matters as much, if not more so, as not lying to the public.