Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer should know better – unparliamentary language isn’t big or clever

There is no need for MPs to call each other dodgy, cowardly, or stool pigeons, argues John Rentoul

Thursday 18 November 2021 16:44
<p>Starmer and Johnson were both engaged in deliberate manipulation of the rules for effect</p>

Starmer and Johnson were both engaged in deliberate manipulation of the rules for effect

There is no complete list of words that constitute unparliamentary language in the House of Commons. But it turns out that “dodgy” is definitely on it. Ed Miliband got away with it in 2015, when as leader of the opposition he called David Cameron “a dodgy prime minister surrounded by dodgy donors”. But Dennis Skinner, the Labour backbencher, was thrown out of the chamber the following year for calling Cameron “Dodgy Dave” over his personal finances.

That ruling seems to have stuck, and Zarah Sultana, another Labour backbencher, was asked today by Eleanor Laing, the deputy speaker, to withdraw the word when she applied it to ministers. After protesting that she couldn’t think of another word, Sultana said she wouldn’t withdraw her remarks, but she avoided being expelled.

The UK parliament website lists nine examples of terms that MPs are not allowed to use to describe each other, which include “coward”, the word Keir Starmer used yesterday to describe Boris Johnson. The others are: blackguard, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stool pigeon and traitor. Some of those are so antique that they have not been used in the Commons this century, except for on occasions when MPs were quoting the rules about what they were and were not allowed to say.

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