MPs need to stop letting Boris Johnson gaslight the public and stand up for honesty

We are swimming in a sea of particular examples already, and MPs need to force the speaker to be an umpire

Alastair Campbell
Sunday 12 July 2020 13:09 BST
Boris Johnson refuses to apologise for blaming care homes for coronavirus deaths

Here’s an idea for a backbench MP for Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Though written as a question to Boris Johnson, it is likely to have to morph into a point of order too.

“Mr Speaker, since parliament resumed, there have been four PMQs... week one, 400,000 fewer families in poverty – not true; week two, no country with a functioning contact tracing app – not true; week three, all local authorities getting pillar 1 and pillar 2 testing data on Covid-19 – not true; last week – we couldn’t have free ports without Brexit, and he hadn’t tried to blame care homes for our appalling death rate. So can I ask the prime minister, when he is telling his lies, does he know he is doing it?”

The speaker now has a problem. Because by the rules and traditions of the House, it is “out of order” to call a fellow MP a liar. But frankly if the speaker demands the usual weasel-word formulation of “inadvertently misleading the House”, he will look pretty ridiculous.

So plough on, MP, do not be silenced.

“Mr Speaker, if you are asking me to withdraw or else leave the chamber for calling this prime minister a liar, this House has a problem. He lies routinely. He has lied at that despatch box every single week since the House resumed. So can you advise me as to what members of this House are supposed to do, if there is no sanction on him when he lies, but there is sanction on those who call him out on it?”

By now, the speaker has an even bigger problem, because the chances are, the honourable member will already be being escorted away to begin his period of expulsion from the chamber.

At this point, others need to rise up. “Point of order, Mr Speaker… our job is to hold ministers to account. If lying is allowed without sanction, how can we do so properly?” And if speaker Lindsay Hoyle insists on simply sticking to the line that no MP is a liar, and therefore another honourable member must leave the chamber, the whole place will look ridiculous.

I raised this issue in an interview with former speaker John Bercow for GQ last November, coincidentally recorded on the day the new speaker was elected.

AC: I do not understand why an MP cannot stand up and say to Boris Johnson that he’s a liar. Because he is a liar.

JB: On the whole, I think it is better to maintain a basic civility of discourse. The argument for that rule is that we are supposed to be honourable and right honourable members, honourably disagreeing with and contradicting each other, not impugning each other.

AC: But he’s throwing that out the window?

JB: I don’t think it would be right that on the basis of some people’s views of a particular leader at a specific time, summarily to dispense with a long-established convention that we don’t accuse each other of dishonesty.

AC: It’s the “good chaps” theory of politics...

JB: It probably is grounded in that.

AC: You’re operating under the assumption that they will tell the truth, and that is the basis under which most prime ministers have operated. If they tell a lie at the despatch box then they are out of the job. Boris Johnson has no such qualms.

JB: Well you’d have to call to mind particular examples, but I am reluctant to act as a referee or umpire on that matter.

Boris Johnson says he is looking at stricter rules on face coverings in shops

We are swimming in a sea of particular examples already, and his successor does have to be a referee or umpire. And MPs have to make that happen. If they don’t call these falsehoods out soon, and call them out for what they are, then that tradition, the expectation of factual truth at the despatch box, dies quickly.

The Johnson/Dominic Cummings project – which started with Brexit and now has institutions as varied as the independent judiciary, an impartial civil service, the BBC, the military and security services in sight, is founded on the destruction of tradition and custom, and the use of lies and gaslighting to do it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gaslighting as a deed “to manipulate (a person) by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.” Certainly, in recent weeks, I have found myself muttering, I must be going mad, on hearing, for example… Johnson is “proud” of the government record on Covid-19 which has been an “apparent success”. There was a ring of steel around care homes (the ones he “didn’t blame”). PPE has been a success story. World-class track and trace. Dominic Cummings did nothing wrong. The Johnson/Robert Jenrick/Richard Desmond planning stench – case closed. The economy will come roaring back. Liam Fox would be a great Word Trade Organisation (WTO) head. We are winning in the Brexit talks.

Most of the media is not properly fulfilling its duties to a healthy democracy here either. Take one of dozens of examples on Brexit. Think back to the sheer volume of coverage devoted to the issue of Northern Ireland border issues, and the thousands of times we were assured there would be no border checks. Yet, on Tuesday, as the UK government sent a request to the EU to build, guess what, border posts in Northern Ireland… it barely registered.

When Johnson recently announced the departure of the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, so that he could appoint his failing Brexit negotiator David Frost as his national security adviser – a job for which, as Theresa May said, he was not remotely qualified – my former No 10 colleague Jonathan Powell drew comparisons with what has happened in recent years in Poland and Hungary. Cue angry eruptions from the Brexiteers and the populists… how dare you compare Britain with such places?

His point was absolutely right: it is that if you let enough little things go, bad people will move quickly to getting away with bigger things.

Here are the Seven Principles of Public Life that the Committee on Standards in Public Life, headed by ex MI5 head Lord Jonathan Evans, exists to uphold.

Selflessness: holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

Integrity: they must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. Nobody told Jenrick.

They should not act or take decisions to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships. Judging by recent reports on some of the non-tendered multimillion Covid contracts, the committee might seek clarification from Michael Gove and Cummings.

Objectivity: they must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

Accountability: they are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this. We are now in satire territory.

Openness: they should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

Honesty: they should be truthful. Spectacular fail.

Leadership: they should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs. The biggest fail of all.

These principles supposedly apply to all elected and unelected – that’s you, Cummings – public servants in local and national government, police, courts, quangos, NHS, schools, and those in the private sector delivering public services.

Parliament needs to stop playing “good chaps” with a thoroughly bad man. And the Committee on Standards in Public Life needs to remind people that it exists. Because those standards are rotting, from the top.

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