Genuine accountability, mock accountability, and the lies of Boris Johnson

28th April 2021

Today’s prime minister’s questions was extraordinary.

On the two issues of the moment the prime minister Boris Johnson was relentlessly unconvincing and evasive.

In respect of the alleged ‘dead pile high’ quote, it is plausible and – according to the media – well-sourced.

In respect of who paid for the Downing Street decorations, the verbal dodges to the simple query of who initially paid for an invoice were painful to watch.


Not many will care.

A significant number of the population will, no doubt, sympathise with the sentiment which the prime minister expressed about lockdown, and more than a few will agree with the actual wording.

Similarly, the question of the refurbishment invoice will not matter to those who do not mind who paid as long as it was not the taxpayer.

Perhaps there will be hard evidence – either compelling on-the-record testimony or even an audio recording – to prove Johnson as a liar.

Yet even then the only surprise would be that he has been so starkly caught out.

The sad, inescapable truth is that Johnson conducts himself as if he is free from accountability.

And the reason he is able to do this is simple: it is because he can.


Let us look at the available mechanisms of accountability.

Johnson and his government will avoid, as long as possible, any formal inquiry as to their conduct in respect of the coronavirus pandemic.

The prospect of an electoral commission investigation is difficult to get excited about, given their impotence in respect of the lack of compliance during the referendum.

And Johnson just freely lies to parliament.

The examples – all of which are documented and verifiable – just accumulate.

Almost nobody cares.

We have more internal ‘inquiries’ – which may or may not report, or even be heard from again.

Few people keep track.

And as Fintan O’Toole observes, Johnson is not now even bothering to lie in prose:

‘It’s not when Boris Johnson is lying that you have to have to worry. If he’s lying, that just means he’s still breathing. No, the real danger sign is the gibbering. It’s what he does when he can’t be bothered to think up a lie.’


Against this pervasive mendacity, those organs of the state that are able to check and balance the executive are being undermined or removed: the independent civil service, the diplomatic corps, the independent judiciary, and so on.

All because – at last – the United Kingdom now has a prime minister willing – and shameless enough – to exploit to the full the (ahem) opportunities that the prime minister has with a parliamentary majority.

Eventually, of course, Johnson’s hubris will meet nemesis – just as he himself eventually came to meet the costs of the Downing Street refurbishment.

And here we are lucky – for if we had a political leader who was as serious in retaining power as, say, Vladimir Putin, we would have few constraints to look to for checking and balancing power.

Johnson is what we get, however, when politicians stop believing (or affecting to believe in) the ‘good chaps’ theory of the constitution.

Tuttery is insufficient – and the tutting could be three times as loud, and it would still make no difference.


There are indications that political and media supporters of Johnson are moving against him.

If so, there could be a mild political crisis and that this may be enough to dislodge Johnson from office.

But this would not be through any application of any constitutional check or the operation of any constitutional balance.

For all of Johnson’s sheer and endless casual dishonesty, there has been nothing the constitution could do to stop him.

Even if he was proven to have lied to parliament, that would mean nothing politically if he still had support of the majority of members of parliament.


And on a final note.

Usually at this point of this sort of exposition, someone will aver that all this shows the need for a written (that is, codified) constitution.

The universal panacea for every political ill.


A written constitution is as likely to entrench executive power than to limit it.

The problem is not the type of constitution.

The problem is instead a related one: the failure of constituionalism.

And while Johnson’s brazen disregard for constitutional norms is tolerated, there is no point changing the rules of the game, for he would disregard those rules too.

The problem is a political one: and the solution is thereby to show that this conduct means he loses power.


If you value this free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, or of £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is usually published at about 9.30am UK time – though some special posts are published later.


You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.


30 thoughts on “Genuine accountability, mock accountability, and the lies of Boris Johnson”

  1. Your point about the constitution is valid. The United States has one of the most famous and well-known written constitutions in the English-speaking world, yet Donald Trump lied freely every day of his presidential term. He was impeached twice and acquitted twice; his mendacitcy was not the reason for either of these prosecutions.

  2. Arlene Foster is no Boris Johnson yet it shows that it doesn’t take much to remove a leader, when the ‘electorate’ moves in concert.

    1. Arlene Foster has been removed by her party & not the electorate in essence because she hasn’t been sufficiently extreme.

      I’d agree however that if Johnson becomes too much of a liability for his own party he’ll be under a bus too.

      1. Sorry I didn’t make myself clear. The ‘electorate’ – hence the ‘ ‘ in this case is members of the assembly and MPs. A small band.

  3. I have to agree with you Mr Green about the “Written Constitution” issue.

    The USA has a written constitution and that did not prevent any of the Trump abuses.

    Indeed, the existence of a written constitution in itself introduces more problems.

    Some legal minds believe the constituion is a sacred text and any deviation from it is an offence and, seemingly, a cause of the ills of society; others oppose them and see the constitution as a document of its time but one that should be free to be amended as society changes.

    So for me, yes, the idea that creating a written constitution will solve the countries ills is folly.

    1. The US constitution is hardly a sacred text if it can be amended by the people. Unfortunately however, the federal system makes such amendments extremely difficult to implement.

      Ireland’s written constitution, on the other hand, can be amended at relatively short notice by referendum and some Irish amendments have been in response to unpopular judicial interpretations of the constitution wording.

      Thus the Irish constitution is a set of standing instructions to authority that the Irish people can reset if necessary. As a model, it has much to commend it, not least its transparency.

  4. There is an assumption here that fundamental norms of democratic behaviour will be honoured, even when slightly less dreadful breaches of democratic / constitutional standards have been breached.

    I am increasingly of the opinion that our inability to stop important breaches and hold accountable those responsible for them puts the whole of our democracy at risk.

    I hope we’ve got enough time and opportunity to turn the situation round – but I’m not convinced we have. Why SHOULD the scallywags who’ve repeatedly got away scot-free with corruption, manipulation of democratic votes and the short-circuiting of accountability mechanisms put any limits on themselves?

    1. For want of repeating what has been previously said – because they can. And who’s to stop them; Their nepotistic and masonic mates in form of judges and ‘regulators’?

      Until people fully realize that the UK is essentially a perverse dictatorship, and CAN (and are motivated to) find some way of doing something about it, it will continue, with many innocent victims.

      I’ve tried for many years, but every time the final say comes back to the same corrupt individuals in power.

      It’s more than one man can do.

  5. You say that he gets away with it because he can. Most of us can’t really comprehend how much money has been wasted like the £37 billion for the failed test and trace. But an awful lot of us have put in new kitchens and bathrooms, and do know what they cost and may well not take kindly to him not being able to refurbish on £30,000.

  6. A note on the US: The comments (I think) misapprehend the US system a bit. The US Constitution, with the exception of a number of explicit directives, is not a rulebook. Rather like the UK’s system it assumes that the gaps will be filled in by people disagreeing but doing so in good faith. Mr Trump was able to twist the US system because he did not act in good faith, not because the written rules failed. (That the House of Representatives twice impeached him suggests that the rules worked as they ought-the final decision is a political one.) The question for all representative systems should perhaps be not how can we draft a more perfect rule, or, as questioned here, how to ensure a check of sorts, but whether any of the current systems can avoid hijacking and destruction by bad faith actors. That we see this happening not only in the US and UK, but in a similar fashion in Turkey, Hungary and some other countries suggests to me that this is not a trivial or academic issue,

  7. And even if he is ejected, we will only get Gove, who is craftier and on DAG’s scale, closer to Putin. By throwing out all MPs of integrity who did not support the Brexit lies, the current so-called government is composed of knaves, shallow zealots and sycophants. We need regime change, but there are several more dissimulators to get through before we escape this swamp, if ever we do.

  8. Thank You again. Surely, the very point of the ‘constitutional reforms’ mentioned in the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto is to “entrench executive power”. Johnson is brazen enough to claim a mandate for just such changes. The lack of visibility of what Gove and Buckland are doing in the absence of an open ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights’ Commission should worry us all and be much stronger focus of Opposition attention. MPs are, literally, sitting by as their role in the UK’s representative democracy is diminished – they’ll probably even vote to allow it!

  9. Here we are, falling into the mock accountability trap. Making an entirely useless fuss about Boris and his wallpaper. Meanwhile, back at the camp MPs in Parliament are walking away from their dereliction of duty over Grenfell.

    That is an issue that matters and is directly lined up with MP’s failure to legislate over fire regulations and building standards. The liability and guilt for Grenfell surely lies at its root with Parliament. Who would ever have thought salespersons would conceal disadvantages in their products or who would ever have thought builders would bodge a job. Let us hope the project manager on Boris’s paint job is on the ball.

    One would almost think the wallpaper story is designed to divert us from things that matter. Hey Ho. Even in the extremely unlikely event of Boris losing his job, does anyone think the replacement will be any better? We seem at a static point in history, going nowhere for a while. Might as well paint the sitting room.

    1. Good points Jim. The electorate have concerns way beyond the rights and wrongs of government sleaze and influence – that is until it affects them directly, losing one’s job, home, friends and relations dying in a pandemic or other disaster. At my local level there is despair that politicians can’t work collaboratively to fix a bridge. Many of your subscribers may not even know to what I’m referring.

      1. The ‘NIMBY’ mentality pervades. Unfortunately, when, subsequently, an individual is affected by the wrongs of the system, they will not be able to do anything about it, because nothing will have changed (and then they will wonder why!)

    2. I couldn’t care more about Grenfell or the Post Office or myriad other ills but the decorating issue is indicative of a whole, revolting attitude towards other people!

    3. There is a larger issue at Grenfell that has gone practically unnoticed. No matter what happened on the outside of the tower, it should have been possible to escape.

      In a previous life way back in the eighties, I was a professional architect in London, working on large commercial buildings for a large practice. I had a pretty good knowledge of the building regulations relating to fire including their underlying principles. I doubt that these principles have changed much in the intervening years, in fact if anything I would have thought standards should have improved.

      One of the most important principles was that there should always be an alternative means of escape, except in very exceptional small-scale circumstances. This was because the regulations recognised that with the best will in the world safety provisions might not work as intended.

      When details of the Grenfell fire became public, I was astonished that a 24 storey residential tower could be let depend on a single escape staircase. Yet it appears that such an arrangement was permitted by the regulations. Many such tower blocks were built before fire safety regulation began to be a national competence in the sixties and one wonders whether a decision was made at some point not to apply the highest standards to accommodation for the great unwashed even going forward from that point.

      Perhaps there was a worry that there was going to be a clamour for retrofits that might be well-nigh physically impossible and could lead to a need to demolish and rebuild large chunks of public housing stock. Nevertheless, it would appear that as it stands there is a lesser safety standard for poor.

    4. Partially agree – the Bois paint-job is not the essential issue.

      But it does, possibly, serve to give a very tiny window into, perhaps, underlying deception by those trusted in power.

      If one wanted to see a much more serious example of that in the UK legal and judicial system, I could supply overwhelming evidence.

      But the fact is, no-matter what goes on, no matter what the evidence or facts or truth, neither you or I can do a jot about it (It’s the style of UK ‘democracy’)

      The UK is controlled by a few for the benifit of a few. The rest can go to Hell (so long as they pay for it)

  10. “Similarly, the question of the refurbishment invoice will not matter to those who do not mind who paid as long as it was not the taxpayer”

    I realise our blogger knows this but this idea that the “taxpayer” isn’t paying is of course baloney, when whoever lent the money to De Pfeffel comes a calling for the favour to be returned where do we think the money will come from?

    To put it another way, someone bought a favour off the Prime Minister, one way or another the favour will be returned and it will almost certainly be at the tax payers expense. If a small donation to the Conservative party grants you multi-million pound Covid contracts for supplying useless PPE, what is a loan to the actual Prime Minister worth?

    1. Agreed, but don’t think the sleazy antics in the UK are just in the political system. The UK judicial and legal system is full of it.

      Agreed also that far too many people don’t seem to care, but those of us who do, can’t do anything about it. There is no power in a corrupt system for the decent and innocent.

      1. I mean the thing is, it’s not our job to explain to the general population WHY it’s actually the thin end of the wedge that the actual Prime Minister of the country being in hock to some unnamed lender (let’s call him V Corleone for sake of argument) is a bad thing, but when those with the job of explaining politics to the masses cannot themselves grasp the fundamentals then I do despair. Example: –

        Here we have Seb Payne, no doubt paid a handsome sum to go on a “punter in the street” safari to the North East being told that, not unsurprisingly, the “punter in the street” does not care about the price of the wallpaper in the PM’s flat because “he hasn’t paid for it”. If you put it to said “punter” that he has definitely paid £26 billion for a useless track and trace system, and untold millions on useless PPE as a direct result of exactly the same contracts for favours pipeline, then the “punter in the street” might have a different opinion of what De Pfeffel has done.

        But then, even the current LotO seems unable to express the obvious in terms that will cut through to the “punter in the street”

  11. It is good that someone stands up and tells it as it is but the two over-riding sentiments I garnered from the piece was that:

    deceipt by those in power in the UK is now the accepted norm, and

    nobody cares.

    I have experienced this is the UK judiciary – the one place one hopes/expects to find honesty and decence. Not so.

    My experience is that the majority of UK judges are variously lazy, disinterested or incompetent – ie they don’t care whether justice or injustice is served, so long as they are picking-up taxpayers money. Some judges are downright corrupt – I have many examples.
    The system –like the political system – is more interested in protecting its image that doing its job.
    When deliberate injustice comes out of the courts, can one expect anything but deceipt from any establishment.

  12. I wonder if the solution lies further down the chain of command. My local constituency is Sevenoaks in Kent. That means that, at the last election, we went from being represented by a senior cabinet minister (who, for all his faults was a surprisingly good constituency MP) to being represented by an inarticulate child desperately out of her depth. It suits the Prime Minister to have his safe seats stocked by such people as they are never going to show independence of thought, let alone vote against him.

    Perhaps a better way of selecting candidates needs to be found. I have no idea what that might be, of course.

    And, no; I don’t think PR would be any better than what we’ve got.

    1. PR & STV would make a world of difference. My “local” Tory MP lives in Gloucester but holds a safe seat on the south coast. Some 45% of the constituency has no representation & the rest are represented by someone whose only local interest is maintaining his margin. No other party gets a look in. Democracy it isn’t.

  13. I doubt whether many UK citizens would personally care if I didn’t pay my TV licence but the argument wouldn’t get past a DDJ and avoid a criminal record.

  14. Political journalism is failing to translate the antics in government and parliament into a “what this means to me” narrative to which the average reader can relate.

    In the meantime, the fact that not enough people care allows the lies, favours and sleaze to continue behind more firmly closed doors.

    Just the fact that there is a group of people in Downing St vetting Freedom of Information requests and making legally questionable decisions on which should be refused or addressed, should horrify everyone.

  15. I rather thought that the very careful preparative work of Sir Kier Starmer during PMQs was that, should it be demonstrable that a minister has lied to parliament (and perhaps especially the prime one), that he would be forced to resign. Admittedly, he could refuse to do so, but perhaps enough of his own MPs would rebel against him to force him (not the Party, alas) from office. If the Daily Mail has turned against Johnson, I think a defenestration is indeed on the cards.

  16. This has come up before: there’s a chap we’ll call ‘John Bull’, goes by the name @Garius on Twitter, who has quite a bit to say about accountability and governance:

    Here’s the lead tweet in the thread:

    For governance to work, it has to be:

    1) Simple
    2) Unambiguous
    3) Have obvious consequences for failure to comply
    4) clear on who has authority to make decisions/exceptions, and MAKE SURE THAT HAPPENS.

    I would recommend a closer look at what he has to say: his day job is building structures of governance and accountability into organisations and contractual relationships.

    He is also the author of ‘The Brexit Tapes’, purportedly an insider view of the May Cabinet, which will appeal to people with a rather peculiar sense of humour:

    And, as an aside, he’s expressed an opinion that Betty Boothroyd would never have let Boris Johnson get away with evading questions in Parliament, let alone lying: and I think he’s right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.