The best of questions and the worst of speeches – a practical example of the accountability gap in UK policy-making

15th July 2021

When the question came, it was superb.

Take a moment to listen to this question to the prime minister from the Sky political editor Beth Rigby – and hold on to hear her follow-up.

As a question from a political journalist to a prime minister, the question could not be bettered – in form, content, or delivery.

Superb – but not exceptional.

The fact is that there are some outstanding journalists – in the United Kingdom and the United States – capable of asking excellent questions.

In the United States even before the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, many of his material and manifest lies, faults and failures were already in the public domain – thanks in part to diligent investigative journalism.

But it did not matter.

A sufficient number of voters clapped and cheered for Trump anyway for him to win the electoral college, if not the popular vote.

Similarly, sufficient number of voters clapped and cheered for Boris Johnson and his governing party to win the general election in 2019, if not the popular vote.

And Johnson’s material and manifest lies, faults and failures were also in the public domain.

It did not matter.

It is a public good – that is a good that does not need any further justification – that journalists as brilliant as Rigby and others ask these questions.

But it is not enough.


How do politicians get away with it?

Here we must turn to the speech that the prime minister gave before the press conference.

The speech was a policy speech – not a political speech to a party conference or a rally.

The speech was also a formal speech as prime minister, with the text formally published on the government’s official website.

And it was perhaps the worst formal policy speech ever given by a prime minister.

Look at the state of this:

Here is just one sentence:

There are prisoners in Belmarsh with shorter sentences.

The speech is gibberish, for sentence-after-sentence and paragraph-after-paragraph.

And even if you want to give the benefit of the doubt – as not even lawyers and legal commentators speak as precisely as they write – this is not an unofficial transcript but the version approved for formal publication on the official government website.

And regardless of form, there is not a single concrete policy proposal in the speech.

Just words, words, words.

How does he get away with it?


We have a juxtaposition, a tension – if not a contradiction – in our political and media affairs, and it has implications for all policy-making and law-making.

We may well have first-rate media questions – but we also have low-level political accountability.


Because politicians with executive power – at least in the United Kingdom – rarely have to be publicly accountable when it can really matter.

A prime minister can brush off a journalist’s question.

A prime minister can brush off the leader of the opposition.

A prime minister with a majority, and ministers generally, are not publicly accountable to anything in any meaningful way for their policy-making and law-making.

Even general elections are not a real check or a balance – as the government reneging on manifesto commitments show.

There is, of course, political accountability to their own back-benchers – but that is rarely in respect of specific policies or laws, and that accountability is informal and often hidden in private meetings and communications.

That is not public accountability.

And so we have the concurrent spectacle of the best of questions and the worst of speeches, and there is little or nothing anybody can do to make the situation any different.


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25 thoughts on “The best of questions and the worst of speeches – a practical example of the accountability gap in UK policy-making”

  1. Well, you’re spot on, of course. What to do?
    Nothing will happen while Johnson is at the helm – Why would he when it won’t benefit him and he has shown himself incapable of operating for the public good.
    But – if he ever goes (and the Gospel of St. Dominic has him staying for a few years until he leaves in search of his Eldorado), what should more moral successors (!) do to achieve proper public accountability? However it is done, it must be done and in such a way as to be foolproof and irreversible. It has to be put in hands where it is tamperproof. Especially now that Johnson’s genie has shown just how easy it is to play the system.
    And if we have anything to be grateful to Johnson for, it is this. But it mustn’t be allowed to happen again.

  2. It helps the government- and Johnson, that the majority of the press have got their backs. No matter how hard Starmer tries in PMQs very rarely do effective barbs barbs make papers or the news channels.
    What did hit home this week we’re the tweets of the England players, most notably, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings. The messages, together with Gareth Southgate’s tournament statement (suspected by a senior Tory MP to have been written for him) were immune to any government denials. The papers (even the S••) took the players’ side. We could then see the worried government faces who were not used to this sort of thing…maybe people were starting to look closely at the Emperor’s clothes.

  3. Utter garbage. (Not your blog, the speech that our great leader made today.) Not a single new idea, policy or pound of expenditure. Hardly a clear thought in the whole speech. Was he drunk?

  4. There is one place where ministers are, or could be, held publicly accountable for their actions. That is in a court of law, either under cross-examination as witnesses compelled to give evidence and/or in criminal proceedings against them.

  5. This at-least-7-sentences-plus-semi-colons’-worth of deliberately confected aria fritta is quite fascinating for what it reveals. If nothing else, Johnson knows very well how to craft a good sentence. But as David says, it’s just words words words, a pile up of them. Its effect is anaesthetising and to all those voters who have yet to rumble him, it probably sounded reassuring; the Bank of England/the mission of this government/overturn inequalities/build back better and on and on and on.
    As well as not being anything like the intellectual he’d like us all to believe, his ability to try and con everybody is quite frankly frightening.
    The Beth Rigby’s and Labour in particular, must maintain this line of criticism and holding to account. Mercilessly. At least twice in the last week I’ve relished Johnson’s frightened rabbit face. I’d like to see much more of it.

  6. It was an awful speech and the way it was so awful seems to be revealing. If Johnson had something meaningful to say about ‘levelling up’ he would have said it but there was nothing. There is a policy vacuum where the government’s landmark policy should be.

    It’s been clear over this week clear that this government is failing both in policy and its ‘culture war’. The ‘vaccine victory’ story has come to an end. Getting Brexit Done won’t win the next election.

    We can see initial signs that the parliamentary Conservative party is getting nervous. Starmer was markedly more confident at PMQ. How long before they start to question whether he is the right person to lead them into the next election?

    1. Agree – who wants to bet on Johnson’s new slogan at the next election – ” Get Covid done”

  7. That single sentence you quoted is an astonishing example of his rambling verbage which makes no sense but mentions his favourite words and phrases to have the right effect on his base.

    He can deny the truth in open questioning MPs or by journalists unless they have the references to hand to demonstrate his lies. The only way to hold him to account is a TV interview by a well prepared interviewer with videos of his speeches and comments to confront him with. Not surprising then that he rarely if ever submits himself to such a formal interview. Another Eddie Mair interview perhaps?

  8. Even if the purpose is obfuscation, he could do with a speechwriter. That speech is just gibberish.

  9. I think the reason he (and others in his government, like Jacob Rees-Mogg) get away with it is that the class system in the UK and the related superiority/inferiority still exist. Or possibly even are more alive than ever.
    A very large part of the population is blinded by the perceived superiority of the Eton educated elite and believe that they themselves are inferior to the elite. These rambling speeches (frequently “enhanced” by Latin or Greek quotes) are designed to support and enhance this feeling. The common voter won’t understand what Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their ilk are talking about (despite their claims to be plain talking….), thinking as they are inferior they just don’t understand the brilliant rhetoric and speeches of the superior leaders. Seeing their success those politicians just keep building on it.
    Will they one day be found out? I don’t know. I hope so, but I think and fear we’re still a long distance away from that.

  10. A considerably more bumbling speech even than Mr Brooke’s at the hustings in Middlemarch (chapter 51).

  11. Surely someone would normally check and edit before such a piece is formally published? The fact that it was not is interesting. ‘Publish and be damned’ to borrow a phrase.

  12. Yes, an absolute humdinger from Beth Rigby. But alas, as you’ve pointed out, Johnson gets away with it and will continue to do so for mechanisms holding this Government to account in the UK are and have been weakened by a naked Emperor supported by a public that appears to have fallen in love with Tripe all over again *shudders* as a popular, national dish.

  13. How do politicians get away with it?

    Because they don’t have to answer the question. They are not in a law court and they would not have got anywhere in politics if they could not avoid answering questions. There seem very few formal fora for closely examining politicians. We have to be content with questions on-the-fly.

    I feel a problem with the British system is that it went from monarchy to mini-monarchy with no real change. All the convenient structures and privileges of monarchy. All that is missing is a crown. Perhaps there is a little one hidden under Boris’s mop.

    Perhaps we might move to a system where the entire cabinet is each assigned a huissier de justice – armed with an iron bar. Strict instructions to apply said iron bar whenever a question is evaded or untruthfully answered. Earpiece and radio to OGH provided for truth/evasion updates.

  14. What percentage of this speech was written by Johnson? If he had others provide assistance were they acting as saboteurs?
    This is not the first time that a Johnson speech has featured rambling gibberish. Even the United Nations has been made to suffer from his deficiencies in speech making. Perhaps three word slogans are his limitation rather than his skill.

  15. Sadly, we don’t have any opposition spokesperson with the wit and lightness of touch of a Harold Wilson. There is obviously a great deal to be serious about, but Johnson hates being laughed at.

      1. Good observation. Starmer should use Milliband as his attack dog. I recall John Prescott being effective in this role during the Major government.

      2. Very interesting to watch this back. The PM knew it was all unraveling, and Miliband laid the blame right at his door.

  16. “Boris Johnson has appointed a Bullingdon Club contemporary to the independent watchdog that advises him on ethical standards in public life.”

    From The Times front page today.

  17. Not so sure about “regardless of form”: someone who had something to say could not produce Johnson’s semi-literate mess. In the words of Buffon, “le style, c’est l’homme même”.

  18. “How do politicians get away with it?”

    In the case of the media: too many courtiers, stenographers and gossip columnists (e.g. what DAG identified as ‘Bluetooth speakers’) and not enough Beth Rigbys asking questions of the standard set by Beth Rigby.

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