No MP or minister has ever lied in parliament – for the simple reason that it is unparliamentary language to accuse another member of versions of the word “lie” or even to suggest that they might have been deliberately untruthful.
Parliamentarians prefer the euphemism “mislead”, although even that is not considered automatically to be an offence. It becomes punishable only if it is judged to be in “contempt” of the House because it has obstructed or distorted the business of law-making.
It really is easier to get thrown out of the House of Commons for calling someone a liar than for lying itself.
In recent times both the Labour MP Dawn Butler and the SNP leader Ian Blackford were ordered out of the chamber immediately for calling prime minister Boris Johnson out, yet two years after his alleged offences over Partygate, MPs are still deliberating what to do.
There is an urgent need for politicians to put their own houses in order. The perception that they cannot be trusted to be honest is a major factor in politicians falling to new lows in public respect. In an age of fake news, social media, and mass data, citizens should rely on their representatives to give it to them straight.
Two mass surveys conducted after the COVID-19 pandemic for University College London’s Constitution Unit found that “be honest” and “own up when they make mistakes” are the characteristics in a politician most valued by the public.
Some 75% of respondents said politicians “should always act within the rules”, compared to only 6% who said they should be prepared to break them “to get things done”.
MPs are jealously guarding their right to police themselves over lying. Neither the Commons speaker nor the parliamentary commissioner for standards is empowered to rule on the matter.
In 2021, a petition to make knowingly lying to parliament a criminal offence obtained more than 100,000 signatures. This forced the UK government to respond by rejecting the idea. It argued that in parliamentary matters MPs should be accountable first to their fellow members, subject to parliamentary codes, and, ultimately, to the voters at election times, and not to the courts.
At least, to the amazement of many foreign politicians, the UK parliament is clear that lying, either admitted or proven, is an offence meriting punishment.
Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary procedure, states: “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.”
Current guidelines re-iterate that an MP or member of the public can be found in contempt of parliament if caught “deliberately attempting to mislead the house or a committee (by way of statement, evidence, or petition)”.
‘Holders of public office should be truthful’
Prime minister John Major tightened the rules in the 1990s following the cash-for-questions affair. Lord Nolan established the committee on standards in public life under seven principles – one of them is “honesty”. “Holders of public office should be truthful” was spelt out in the code of conduct.
The rules are tougher for ministers. The ministerial code insists: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
The Scottish parliament’s ministerial code states that the offender should resign.
A resolution passed by parliament on the recommendation of the public service committee is equally firm, saying: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.
“Ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister.”
The ‘good chap theory of government’
Until recently the process has operated according to what the historian and Lord Peter Hennessy has dubbed the “good chap theory of government”. When things got sticky MPs usually bowed to the inevitable and either resigned in anticipation of sanctions or accepted the verdict of a privileges committee investigation.
In 1947 an MP called Gary Allingham was expelled for alleging that other MPs were selling information to newspapers when he himself was the culprit.
Most famously, in 1963 the secretary of state for war John Profumo resigned as a minister, a privy councillor and an MP when facing a “grave contempt” motion for lying to the Commons that he had not had an affair with Christine Keeler, who also had a relationship with a Soviet military attaché. A subsequent investigation by Lord Denning found that national security had not been endangered.
In 1995 Jonathan Aitken kept it away from parliament. He resigned as a minister while fighting a libel action “against the cancer of twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play”. The Guardian proved its case against him and published a book called The Liar. Aitken was no longer an MP when he was sent to prison for perjury and perverting the course of justice.
‘A straight untruth’
In a case made much of by Boris Johnson’s legal team, Stephen Byers, one of Tony Blair’s cabinet ministers, was judged not to have committed contempt in 2001 because he had “inadvertently” made a factually inaccurate statement to a transport committee. But Mr Byers resigned as a cabinet minister shortly afterwards following further controversy. He left politics altogether at the subsequent election. So did Amber Rudd, who resigned immediately as home secretary, after “inadvertently” giving false statistics supplied by officials to a select committee.
Other officials and ministers have sometimes played teasingly with the notion of lying. In a famous exchange in an Australian Court with the barrister and future prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong denied telling “a straight untruth”, while admitting “perhaps being economical with the truth”. At the Old Bailey over the arms to Iraq scandal, the raffish defence minister Alan Clarke refined this to “our old friend ‘economical… with the actualité’.”
Mr Johnson’s case is unique for a number of reasons. He told his alleged untruths to the whole House of Commons, on a number of documented occasions. Prime ministers are usually the final arbiter rather than the subject of such charges. He is also no longer a minister, having resigned after his colleagues turned against him for inaccurately stating what he knew about the alleged groping activities of Chris Pincher, who he made deputy chief whip.
‘Festive events’ in Downing Street
Rishi Sunak has already said that Mr Johnson’s case is a matter for MPs, the government will stay out of it. But Mr Johnson used the whip to try to save his friend Owen Patterson from the punishment recommended by the privileges committee. He is now fighting the parliamentary process investigating him. His main defence is that he genuinely believed that the “festive events” in Downing Street during the pandemic were not in violation of the rules and guidelines against the spread of COVID-19 which he himself introduced.
Subsequently 83 people, including Mr Johnson, accepted police fines for breaking the rules. Although he repeatedly made statements to the house which turned out to be untrue, his team argue he is not guilty of contempt because he did so “inadvertently”, not “deliberately” or “knowingly”.
MPs, on the committee and then in the whole house, will have to make many fine judgements whether and, if found guilty, how to punish Mr Johnson. Perhaps to his relief, fines are no longer an option – the last MP to be fined was in 1666, the eye watering sum of £1,000 equivalent to £110,000 today. Parliament’s options are imprisonment (highly unlikely), or suspension – if for 10 sitting days or more this would trigger a recall petition, and a possible byelection, in his constituency.
Meanwhile, national newspaper cartoonists are priming their cartoons of bears in the woods. Parliamentary niceties about alleged lying and the partisan politics likely to follow any verdict are unlikely to lift the standing of politicians in the public’s eyes.