In the arcane language of parliament, every member is “honourable”. The expectation is that everyone behaves appropriately and does not deliberately mislead or lie to the House of Commons or Lords.
This expectation is reinforced by codes of conduct – such as the ministerial code, and the Nolan principles, which were introduced after the cash-for-questions scandal of the 1990s – that set out the standards expected of public office holders. The ministerial code is clear about the duty of ministers to give “accurate and truthful information to parliament”. Ministers who knowingly mislead parliament are expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister.
This isn’t about the occasional slip of the tongue, or making an honest mistake with figures. This is a consistent failure to be honest with the facts or to correct misleading or wrong information as soon as possible, as parliamentary rules require.
It used to be the case that ministers would resign if they had misled the Commons by making a false statement. Boris Johnson instead is making a career out of it. There is a shameless normalisation of lying that poses a real danger to parliament’s ability to hold the government to account.
There are numerous examples, which are being added to all the time. At Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), he has claimed that “under this Conservative government, the economy has grown by 73 per cent”. That’s ludicrous, as it refers to all growth since 1990 and includes 13 years of Labour governments. But it didn’t stop him repeating the claim the following week.
He said in March last year “we have restored the nurses’ bursary”. Again untrue. Student nurses have been awarded a £5,000 maintenance grant, but still have to pay tuition fees that they didn’t under the nurses’ bursary.
Johnson claimed last June that there were 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than in 2010, which the children’s commissioner herself and the Office for Statistics Regulation said wasn’t true. It was also deeply insulting to the millions of families struggling to pay bills or having to rely on food banks. We’re still waiting for a retraction or apology.
Most recently, he told me during PMQs that the details of all Covid-related contracts were “on the record”, directly contradicting a High Court ruling that found the government to be in breach of the law for not putting everything on the record. Again, no retraction.
Perhaps this repeated lying shouldn’t have come as a surprise. One of his former editors has written of him: “Johnson would not recognise truth … if confronted by it in an identity parade.”
But it matters because MPs cannot properly hold a government to account if they are consistently given false information that goes into the parliamentary record and is never corrected, even when it is clearly shown to be untrue.
When the prime minister shows such a casual disregard for the truth, it sets the tone for all government ministers. If some statements cannot be believed, can anything be believed?
Anyone who watches or listens to PMQs will have heard the Commons speaker’s exasperation with Johnson. In an unusual statement, Lindsay Hoyle said last month that it was “of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error”. We are still waiting.
Parliament’s reputation has been battered in the past by political scandals like cash-for-questions and MPs’ expenses. But the damage goes beyond parliament: it undermines confidence in our democracy and trust in political leadership, which is absolutely critical if we are to successfully make the huge changes we need to our economy in response to the climate emergency.
Lies have consequences beyond parliament too. In Northern Ireland, nights of violence on the streets by loyalist gangs have been fuelled by the government’s failure to be honest about the impacts of the hard Brexit it pursued and the prime minister’s blatant lie that there would be no checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea once the UK had left the EU.
The truth matters and Johnson’s failure to grasp that is putting stability in Northern Ireland at risk, as well as trust in our democracy.
That’s why I, along with leaders of the other opposition parties at Westminster, have now asked the speaker to allow us to table a motion, calling for the prime minister to be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
Our parliamentary process needs defending from a prime minister who is treating it with contempt.
Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion
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