The suspension of the member of parliament Dawn Butler from the house of commons is a significant example of the function-failure of the constitution of the United Kingdom.
Butler’s suspension was because she called the prime minister a liar on the floor of the house of commons.
But as the current prime minister casually and freely lies in the house of commons (and elsewhere) this suspension creates a constitutional mismatch.
In essence: there is no real sanction for a prime minister (or other member of parliament) for lying to the house of commons, while there is a real sanction for those members of parliament who point it out.
It is an extraordinary – and counter-intuitive – constitutional predicament.
There is something very wrong here.
How did we get into this mess?
First, it must be understood and accepted that there is a problem with prime ministerial dishonesty.
Perhaps there always has been – and our current prime minister is no worse than his predecessors – but even if this shruggy view is accepted, there is no doubt the current prime minister lies and lies.
That Hamlet’s father and Jacob Marley were both dead to begin with, and that Boris Johnson lies, are fundaments in English culture.
One source for the prime minister’s ongoing dishonesty is this particularised, non-sensational list put forward by leaders of six parties in the house of commons to the speaker:
There are similar examples in almost every session of prime minister’s questions.
A more sensational compendium is in this widely viewed video from Peter Stefanovic:
The reason to emphasise the prime minister’s actual dishonesty as a real concern is that the supposedly pragmatic constitution of the United Kingdom is supposedly good at practical (if inelegant) solutions to actual problems.
This, we are told by constitutional fogeys, is why our constitution is cuts above the formal codified constitutions of foreigners with their ‘rigid’ rules.
Here is an actual constitutional problem in need of a practical ‘flexible’ solution – and we ain’t got one.
The second aspect of the problem is that the rules of parliament (which are distinct from the law of the land) in effect prohibit members of parliament from accusing other members of parliament of dishonesty – regardless of whether there is any dishonesty.
It would even be against parliamentary rules to say of a member of parliament that they are a liar even if the lies have been admitted.
The formal guide to the rules of parliament is known as Erskine May, and the relevant passage about accusations of dishonesty is:
‘Expressions when used in respect of other Members which are regarded with particular seriousness, generally leading to prompt intervention from the Chair and often a requirement on the Member to withdraw the words, include the imputation of false or unavowed motives; the misrepresentation of the language of another and the accusation of misrepresentation; and charges of uttering a deliberate falsehood.’
This is not an absolute bar to making accusations of dishonesty against other members of parliament – there is a formal but ineffective way:
‘If a Member wishes to pursue accusations of a kind not permitted because of these principles, the proper course is to table a distinct motion about the conduct of the other Member.’
The issue with such a motion is that – even if passed: so what?
Erskine May also does have a section on misleading the house, which provides:
‘The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.’
To which the issue again is: so what?
One may as well cast a line into the Thames, catch an improbable and unpolluted fish, and slap that unfortunate fish on the dispatch box.
The wider predicament is that the constitution of the United Kingdom is premised on what the historian Peter Hennessy has long characterised as the ‘good chap’ theory of government.
Here is Hennessy’s phrase being used back in the innocent days of 2005 where the concern was merely memoirs by former officials.
More recently, in 2019, here is Hennessy and another author explaining in detail the failures of the ‘good chap’ theory – a report which should be read by anyone with an interest in constitutional affairs.
In essence: the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom work as an honour-based system based on those with power exercising self-restraint.
All it takes is a knave to disrupt and undermine the system – and there is nothing within the system to check and balance such knavery.
This complacency is why there are more ready sanctions against those who accuse ministers of dishonesty than there is against the dishonesty of ministers – for the latter, according to constitutional fiction would not (or should not) happen.
There is merit in having a general rule against lightly making serious accusations in the houses of parliament.
But the counterpoint to such a rule is that there should be a practical means of addressing the problem of ministerial dishonesty.
Otherwise we have the current situation: wonky, lop-sided and discrediting.
That Butler should face a serious a sanction while Johnson does not defies common sense and it should should defy our constitutional arrangements too.
Some may say all this shows that there is a need for a ‘written’ (or codified) constitution.
But the solution to this problem does even not need such a drastic (and unlikely) change – and the problem of executive dishonesty happens in states with written constitutions too.
The solution would be for constitutionalism to (again) be taken seriously by politicians generally.
Constitutionalism (a theme of this blog) is the notion that there are political rules and principle that are above partisanship.
The reason why the prime minister can get away with such dishonesty is that a majority of the house of commons let him.
If a majority of the house averred that such conduct was unacceptable, regardless of party or faction, then the speaker would have the powers to address the issue.
As it stands, the speaker is given the powers to deal with accusations of dishonesty, but not the dishonesty itself.
It would not need a written constitution to solve this problem.
It would instead take resolution – and, literally, resolutions.
It would need members of parliament to take constitutionalism seriously.
And until members of parliament take constitutionalism seriously again, we are going to have the now-familiar sight of our dishonest prime minister sitting safely at the dispatch box, dismissively shaking his head – while those who point out his lies are ejected.
And that is because the constitution is dismissively shaking its head too.
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