Misleading the country: Boris Johnson and ministers have made dozens of false statements to parliament

Exclusive investigation : Labour accuses government of ‘litany of lies and falsehoods’ as calls for corrections are ignored

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Tuesday 19 April 2022 15:02
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Dozens of false statements have been made in parliament by Boris Johnson and his ministers over the past two years amid a “crisis of honesty”, it can be revealed.

The prime minister has not lodged any corrections to the official House of Commons record, despite being reprimanded by the statistics watchdog and having his incorrect statements pointed out by opposition MPs and fact-checkers.

Labour has accused the government of disrespecting the public with a “litany of lies and falsehoods”, while the Conservative former attorney general Dominic Grieve said the figures suggested “a disregard both for good governance and truth”.

The 17 false statements attributed to Mr Johnson following an investigation by The Independent, working with Full Fact, include claims regarding Downing Street parties, refugees, Covid boosters, crime rates, and the economy.

They are among at least 27 uncorrected false statements made by ministers to parliament since the December 2019 general election.

Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, said the prime minister was “degrading his office”.

“This litany of lies and falsehoods show a total lack of respect for the public from this Conservative government and its ministers,” she told The Independent.

“The ministerial code is absolutely clear that mistakes should be corrected as soon as possible, and purposely misleading parliament should mean resignation.

“But ministers are instead taking their lead from the prime minister himself, who has no issue with repeating mistruths and conspiracy theories.”

Calls are mounting for a new system to ensure that false statements can be challenged in parliament without MPs falling foul of a rule that forbids them from accusing one another of lying.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: “Every time Mr Johnson and his ministers have misled parliament is just another blow to people’s trust in his sinking ship of a government – those who mislead the public must be held accountable.

“It’s clear that Mr Johnson has already lost the trust of the nation. Now the very least we should do is be able to hold his Trumpian behaviour to account.”

He said there needs to be “serious action to stop ministers running roughshod over the truth”, and called for MPs to be allowed to point out where the prime minister has made “misleading statements”, without the risk of being thrown out of the Commons.

Former Tory minister says PM’s Savile slur ‘a mistake’

In February, Mr Johnson lodged his first ever “clarification” under a separate process involving a written statement, after claiming that Roman Abramovich was “facing sanctions” as part of a crackdown on Russian oligarchs at a point where had had not been penalised.

Among the false statements made by the prime minister was his 31 January claim that Sir Keir Starmer had “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”, referring to the Labour leader’s previous role as director of public prosecutions.

The slur, which was later repeated by protesters who mobbed the Labour leader in Westminster, has not been retracted by Mr Johnson despite the fact that Sir Keir did not make the decision on Savile.

During the same parliamentary debate on 31 January, the prime minister claimed that the government had “cut crime by 14 per cent”.

He was reprimanded by Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, who said the figure was “true only if fraud and computer misuse are excluded”, while the crime rate including these categories had increased by 14 per cent.

Other ministers who have made false statements in parliament during the same period include Matt Hancock in his time as health secretary, home secretary Priti Patel, attorney general Suella Braverman, and culture secretary Nadine Dorries.

Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative MP who served as attorney general between 2010 and 2014, said: “The long list of untrue statements to parliament, and the failure to correct them as required both by the rules of the Commons and the ministerial code, should be of great concern to all who believe in the need for integrity from government. It marks a major departure from prior practice and suggests a disregard both for good governance and truth.”

Calls are mounting for changes that would force ministers to correct false statements – a process that currently relies on the voluntary submission of letters to the Hansard parliamentary report.

In the same period since the 2019 election, 75 ministerial corrections have been recorded by Hansard – but none from the prime minister.

Most were minor factual errors, such as defence secretary Ben Wallace getting the name of a missile wrong, and transport secretary Grant Shapps saying 11 rather than 10 climate activists had been jailed after blocking roads.

Will Moy, chief executive of the fact-checking group Full Fact, said it was “only human” for MPs to make mistakes while responding off the cuff during parliamentary debates.

“The problem isn’t people making honest mistakes, it’s people making mistakes and not being willing to correct them – that isn’t honest behaviour,” he told The Independent.

“It is ridiculous that you have a system where the speaker can throw an MP out of the House of Commons for accusing somebody of lying, but an MP who is lying cannot be sanctioned in any way.

“The only MPs who can correct the record are government ministers, and there’s no mechanism to make them do that when they don’t want to.”

Mr Moy labelled the situation a “crisis of honesty”, adding: “The persistent failure of the prime minister and other ministers to correct the record when they are clearly required to do so under parliamentary rules creates a crisis not just of their own behaviour, but of parliamentary accountability.”

He said that in governments prior to the 2019 election, it was common for senior politicians to “quietly drop” false claims, even if they refused to correct the record.

“In this case we’re seeing senior government ministers, and the prime minister, repeating claims that are not true, and that they have had every chance to get right, up to and including their own regulator of statistics telling them what they’re saying is not true,” he added. “That is both new and shocking.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government takes seriously its duties to ensure parliamentary accountability and scrutiny by an independent free press.”

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