How, in practice, can a prime minister be prevented from lying to the House of Commons?

30th April 2021

The relentless and casual dishonesty of the current prime minister Boris Johnson may still have political or parliamentary consequences.

But just as a thought-exercise, say, would it be a good idea to put the prime minister under oath (or affirmation) at PMQs?

Then, in theory, the prime minister’s mind would concentrate wonderfully, as he would be under some sort of punitive sanction in the event he knowingly said something false.

In this way, the position of the prime minister would be akin to a witness in a legal case, who is under pain of perjury in the event that they do not say the truth.

It is the sort of notion that can appeal to the mind’s eye.

*

But.

It would not work easily in practice.

For example: who would determine whether the prime minister is saying something untrue or not?

If the house of commons as a whole, they can do this by motion already – although this will not happen in practice to a prime minister with an overall majority.

And, if not the house of commons as whole, who?

The speaker? A committee? An official?

How would they go about assessing whether there had been a falsehood or not?

*

And then there is the deeper – almost categorical – problem.

The prime minister is not providing evidence in answer to parliamentary questions.

This by itself differentiates the prime minister from a witness in legal proceedings.

A prime minster may be asked to give an account of the government’s position – an explanation, rather than a list of facts.

Indeed, any statements of fact are merely incidental to this giving of an account.

A prime minister can thereby provide a full answer to a parliamentary question and not state any fact at all.

Accordingly, the witness-perjury model is not an exact fit.

*

But how do you stop a prime minister – or any other minister – from stating untruths at the dispatch box?

Thee polite constitutional fiction is that honorable and right honorable members do not lie in parliament – and that is why they cannot (other than by a parliamentary motion) be accused of lying. 

But this ‘good chaps’ theory is being flouted – brazenly so.

We therefor have a problem without an easy solution.

Putting the prime minister under oath may not work – but what would?

How can – in practice – there be a check and balance to a prime minister lying in the commons – if mere conventions do not matter any more?

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27 thoughts on “How, in practice, can a prime minister be prevented from lying to the House of Commons?”

  1. Isn’t the problem with Johnson is that he never comes back to correct the record?
    If at least he did, he might find that having to come back and correct the record so often reach the wider public who seem to be unaware or don’t care?

  2. PMQs has always been a travesty though I cannot recall it being worse than it is now. The PM makes no attempt to answer the questions put to him – unless it is a cringingly excruciating softball lobbed by a Tory backbencher “would the PM agree with me…” Speaker Hoyle is wetter than a soggy paper bag and so Johnson gets away not only with failing to answer the question, but also to blithely state any number of untruths because he knows the Speaker will not intervene or sanction him. A Speaker with some cojones would be a good start. That is after all his job.

  3. Dictum meum pactum, but when has his word ever been Johnson’s bond?

    There is a certain irony that Johnson’s hero, whom he will never equal, coined the phrase, terminological inexactitude.

    It is now acceptable Parliamentary language to suggest that a Member, Right Honourable or otherwise, is guilty of a terminological inexactitude, perhaps when tired and emotional.

  4. The barriers for people lacking integrity should may be exist before they get to the commons and to front benches – i.e. in the political parties. Some have been pointing out the hollowing out of the party system into sort of one issue fan crowds that lack the sustained mass membership that they used to have. That weakens their organisation, their ability to produce policies as well as their functioning as a filter for people like Boris.

  5. It’s not the lying to Parliament that will get him, but the ‘cover up’ and the lying to some entity that has the power to sanction. This will be a court or a quasi-judicial process. The offence doesn’t matter. In fact to an extent the ideal felony is one that can be clearly seen but is regarded as ‘nothing to see here’ by the habitual liar. In this respect the incompetence and malfeasance over the pandemic is too big for the task. And maybe wallpaper will be too trivial (but the die is now cast). Then if not simple lying then the erosion of the trust of his colleagues in his ability to keep them in power and gravy will finally produce the requisite votes in the 22 Committee. Let’s hope.

  6. One quick and simple change I’d like to see is the discontinuation of MPs referring to each other as “honourable” or “right honourable”. Some may still be; others demonstrably are not. The antiquated practice is worse than meaningless, as it bestows a veneer of respectability on people who do not merit it.

  7. As above so below.

    Whilst, from time to time, being economical with the actualitie is something civil servants are used to being, a downright lie is rarely acceptable, unless life and limb are at risk.

    As someone who represented my senior managers in public forums, I placed a high premium on being as open and honest as possible, even invoking Chatham House rules on occasion, because the risks associated with not doing so were just too great.

    Risks to one’s reputation, to those who had put their trust and faith in me and to my Department.

    And candour, in particular, explaining why one is saying no to a proposition invites candour, a prize in itself and moves a discussion on, hopefully, to a satisfactory conclusion.

    Johnson, of course, has never had to worry about his reputation. He loses employment and just bumbles into another job.

    And, whilst during his life, he has had jobs combining power with responsibility, he has never seemingly taken the responsibility seriously.

    He has never ceased to be a Bullingdon Club member and still greets fellows who have been with “Buller. Buller. Buller”.

    One smashes up someone’s restaurant, a venture into which they may have put their heart and soul over many years, and the next day you send them a cheque to cover the damage, because there was no malice in what had been done.

    The rules that apply to us lesser mortals do not apply to a Boris Johnson.

    I gather Gandhi once said peaceful protest only works if those you are protesting against are capable of being shamed.

    Johnson would surely be amused at the idea of telling the truth and shaming the Devil?

  8. The short answer I think is to have all mainstream media ruthlessly calling this out on every channel and every single time.

    This is not happening since the United Kingdom is far from having truly independent media – the fact that the majority of the media are supportive of the Conservatives in a very partisan way, combined with an archaic voting system that favours the Conservatives, creates a system that is formally democratic but fails to give all parties equal chances to win votes and get into government.

    And the Conservatives and their supporters in the media respond cynically: “Who cares?”

  9. I’d suggest that during PMQs the Speaker should keep granting questions until they’re actually answered. Obviously the Speaker would have to be mindful of cheap, loaded questions, but so think it’d help.

    Currently the PM can essentially not answer or lie when responding to opposition questions and grandstand whilst responding to planted and/or sycophantic questions from his own side.

    It’s particularly bad when responding to the last question from the Leader of the Opposition as the PM knows he can crack out a speech and the LotO can’t come back… would soon stop if the LotO was then granted another question because the PM had made a speech instead of answering the previous one.

  10. MPs are supposed to be honourable, it is literally in their titles. Effectively it is implicit that one does not knowingly mislead the house or lie, but without consequences there is little that can be done. A speaker prepared to reprimand or force an embarrassing climb-down would be a good start.

  11. Mores change, and so can rules. If, for example, lying is acceptable, then calling someone a liar should also be acceptable. Otherwise outdated rules are merely gags used by the professionally disingenuous.

  12. Perhaps the Prime Minister should be required to swear an oath prior to PMQ’s? Something along the lines of: ‘I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God’ should do very nicely.
    On recent showings, this should lead to the shortest PMQ’s in history.

  13. A certain level of “diplomatic language”, a degree of “economy with the truth” may well be necessary at the dispatch box*.

    But that isn’t the case with Johnson. To understand why lying comes as naturally as breathing to him you need to investigate his psychology, his background, education, and upbringing. So far, lying has brought “success”; he has become prime minister, a long-held ambition. And he has won a large majority for the Tories. As long as he is seen as an electoral asset, they will keep him. Once the electorate see through him, he’s a goner. And that, sadly, is probably the only thing that will stop him.

    * I’m reminded of a story about Sir Alec Douglas-Home when he was foreign secretary. A very irate, young, and inexperienced MP, questioned him about the treatment of a constituent who had been arrested on drugs charges in Turkey. Sir Alec attempted to placate the MP, but in vain.

    A little later, the MP was asked to come to Sir Alec’s office in the HoC; there a file of information on his constituent was waiting for him. Sir Alec left the MP to read the file; it showed the constituent to be a “very bad egg” and that the allegations were true. The MP was very apologetic when Sir Alec returned; Sir Alec explained about “reading between the lines” to him.

  14. MPs are effectively on oath the whole time. Misleading the House is a serious matter and most MPs are very quick to apologise if caught out. The current Government front bench seems particularly brazen about not apologising for lying however. It is surely up to the Speaker to address this. Speaker Bercow certainly would have.

    The problem with PMQs is that Prime Ministers have never been obliged to directly answer questions, so overtly putting them on oath would be pointless. Rather than actually lie, they deflect, reply with a carefully worded statement or simply answer a different question entirely, not the point put.

    Johnson has certainly lied in some of his replies to Starmer, usually when he accuses him of something (voting for this, not voting for that, etc). The truth of these things is provable by reference to Hansard, yet Johnson has managed to avoid correcting the record and the Speaker has not compelled him to do so.

    If caught lying to the House the Ministerial Code states he should resign. But of course the person responsible for imposiing this standard is the Prime Minister, so he is never going to be forced to abide by that. In the end he’ll only be brought down by his own party when his mendacity becomes to embarrassing for them.

  15. In my views the overall system is broken due to the class of politicians we have and the growing tribalism and polarisation in politics. Words and accusations have lost meaning. Corrections aren’t acknowledged.

    With each verbose accusation people remove the goodwill and harm each subsequent one inflicts on the person.

    John Lewis is a prime example. Neither the PM nor his partner said “John Lewis nightmare”, Tatlers did. Yet it’s a oft attributed phrase by people attacking the PM regularly.

    Despite what a seemingly large amount of politically engaged folk appear to believe. People are not idiots manipulated by the media. They see it, they then distrust the accusations. The flat has come at the end of the “dodgy contracts” which at the time Gov. Was desperate, labour even provided a list of contacts that were equally eclectic and complained the gov. Hadn’t contacted. One of the “crony” companies was a Labour donor.
    We had Grensill where the Gov. Rejected the former PMs pleas. All declared and recorded.

    The Dyson tax changes which Labour approved in Parliament and Dyson made no money on or even claimed back 20 million cost. His response to the Kuenssberg article as a hatchet job not fact checked.

    Now they get to a genuine issue on undeclared donations and influence but for most non engaged the result is ‘just throwing more mud’.

    All it does it create noise, the boy who cried wolf.

    I dont think Boris has any magic power to be Teflon. People know he can be a bit untrustworthy, but trust him to do what they want or try to. Your champion doesnt have to embody your principles as long as they are progressing your agenda. See how many centrist and leftists took this to heart with Corbyn.

    Want accusations of dishonesty etc. To stick and impact politically it needs more good faith in politics, putting things in context and being fair to your opponents same way you are to your tribe. Most people will not take the time to research and issue but shortcut and see if it’s the usual suspects usual accusation.

    Any “independent” organisation to monitor will fail. The desire to “fact check” opinions will take over. As politics is not as simple as mathematical equations. There are too many variables and motives will always be opinions.

    And I have no love for the Gov. I’m a civil servant, ive been under both parties. I see my work manipulated and attacked out of context making me more apathetic and nihilistic.

    While politics is a game, and the ranks of MP evidently show it as one the consequences are going to be small. When its serious the consequences will be. I have no hope to see that soon.

    1. “I dont think Boris has any magic power to be Teflon. People know he can be a bit untrustworthy, but trust him to do what they want or try to.”

      A bit untrustworthy? He’s been lying and ignoring authority all his life. He doesn’t have magic powers, but because he flouts long established constitutional conventions he can lie and get away with it. It’s only those convention that hold ministers to account. Perhaps the answer is to take judgement on breaches of the ministerial code out of the hands of the PM?

      Tribalism in politics is nothing new, behaviour such as we see in Johnson’s administration certainly is.

  16. Why, oh why when Johnson has blatantly lied in Parliament doesn’t his lie get “corrected” such as:

    “Mr Speaker I’d just like to correct the Prime Minister on his last/earlier comment, the fact is/facts are …..”

    It is so damn frustrating listening to him lie and the House stays quiet.

    Call him out for goodness sake.

  17. The issue is not fibbing or exageration, but a deliberate lie told with the intention of misleading the House (for example, Bojo stating that he has paid for the refurb when it was not the case). It would not require much to make such an act (after the fact) a matter of perjury which would be subject to criminal sanction and judged by (lets say) the Supreme Court. It could be triggered by a complaint from a party leader and investigated internally, initially. The real question is whether MPs would ever agree to treating the matter seriously.

    As I noted the other day, Starmer may be planning to test the requirement for a minister to resign if they are shown to have deliberately misled the House…

  18. One could have a group of independently-appointed officials assessing and issuing a finding on whether or not a statement is true, according to a benchmark definition which Parliament itself lays down and is free to revise. The definition could be called ‘legislation’ and the officials ‘judges’. If it required an inroad into Article 9 of the Bill of Rights then express words of partial repeal (e.g. ‘notwithstanding any provision to the contrary’ etc) are within Parliament’s power.

  19. Lying to the House is a breach of the Ministerial Code.
    It is the Prime Minister’s duty to enforce the Ministerial Code.
    If the Prime Minster neglects that duty to such an extent that it amounts to a breach of the public’s trust, then that becomes a criminal offence at common law.

    While the lies to the House would be covered by parliamentary privilege the enforcement of the Ministerial Code would not be and therefore the Prime Minister would be open to prosecution.

  20. Is the thought experiment “how do we get the Prime Minister to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at PMQs?”

    One answer might be to turn PMQs into some form of weekly Select Committee, with appropriate rules on the PM’s appearances before the committee.

    But more broadly this suggests the question might equate to “how do we turn PMQs from a political event into a more factual one?” But this suggests that the answer will always revolve around, “what are the sanctions for politicians speaking untruths?” In the end it must come to sanctions if we believe some politicians will undoubtedly lie. And there is still no obvious answer to that question.

    Perhaps we should look to “the boy who cried wolf” principle. But as with Trump, it may take a long time and a lot of lies before democracy chooses to disregard the boy crying wolf.

    1. I suggest that government salaries, and those of their MPs should be linked to the quality of answers at PMQ…

  21. Hire a Huissier de Justice armed with an iron bar.

    Are there any countries where politicians do not lie and do generally provide an honest answer? Which ones and do they have a system we could copy – without other objectionable disadvantages.

    Time to resurrect Northcote and Trevelyan perhaps.

  22. A regulatory body with teeth, similar to that which oversees medics and registered nurses? References and declarations of good character before being granted the role. Treat political office as the professional role it is, not King-cosplay. Any working person knows they are subject to workplace performance and behaviour rules – tightening this up in the HoC could help the electorate to have more confidence in the integrity of their MPs and demolish the common “they’re all the same” cynicism.

  23. In pre-history, half-a-century ago, I was a very junior government press officer. Truthfulness was drilled into me from day one. Lying to a journalist was a sacking offence: yes, even ministers didn’t lie in those days without sanction.

  24. The speaker should be able to declare any answer by ministers of all ranks inadequate or misleading or untrue.
    Such a ruling could be a prelude to action by the parliamentary conduct authority.
    I doubt the power would ever be needed but it would change behaviour

  25. Yes! I like the logic! Are there any barristers keen to take it on? They could establish their careers on that!

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