Etiquette, Honesty and Political Office


Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

The truth matters. Britain’s Conservative government has set a bad track record  of misleading parliament and failing to correct the record. These actions not only damage the reputation of political office, but also threaten the freedom of debate, the effectiveness of the legislator, and the respect of the electorate.

If the government cannot uphold the highest standards of truth, honesty and integrity, then all else is lost.

The British Houses of Parliament are world-renowned for eccentric traditions – whether it be the distinguished role of black rod in the opening of parliament, or the iconic phrase “order,” popularised by former speaker of the House John Bercow. But in recent months one tradition has captured more attention than any other – the suspension of Members of Parliament (MPs) who accuse other members of lying. Language and allegations of this sort are frowned upon in parliament in fear that they might disrupt the “character of parliamentary debate.” This is not to say that members are allowed to lie without consequences – if members are found to have misled the house they are asked to correct the record. But proving formally that an MP lied, or “misled the house” as it is officially known, requires a parliamentary investigation.

Under the tenure of Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister, accusations like these have been used frequently by opposition parties as they expressed their dismay at Johnson’s fast and loose relationship with the truth.

In July 2021, Labour MP Dawn Butler made national headlines when she refused to withdraw accusations that Boris Johnson was a liar. Butler was subsequently suspended from the chamber for the rest of the day, and her comments were met with mixed responses from the British public – some applauding her courage and duty, while others disapproved of her child-like comments.

The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, was also asked to leave the chamber after failing to withdraw similar comments directed toward the Prime Minister in January this year. The current speaker of the house, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, gave Blackford – an experienced MP, well-aware of parliamentary etiquette – several opportunities to withdraw the comments he made in light of the publication of the infamous Sue Gray report. The report was an internal civil service investigation into the Downing Street parties or Partygate, that took place over the course of the pandemic. 

Blackford received an alleged 12,000 emails in support of his comment; given his parliamentary experience, it does not take much to deduce his accusations were intentional. After all, Johnson did admit his innocence to the house and has subsequently been fined for his involvement on at least one occasion.

Whether Butler and Blackford were correct in their allegations is irrelevant. What we should be asking is, without wanting to descend parliament into chaos, what can be done if MPs can’t accuse senior ministers of misleading the house? How else are opposition MPs meant to hold the government to account, if not by calling them out on such occasions? This is especially important when ministers refuse to correct the record or acknowledge any acts of misinformation, falsity or dishonesty on their account.

Misinformation and incorrect statistics have become a common occurrence in the House of Commons. Charity Full Fact, an independent, fact-checking organisation, is continually fighting misinformation in politics. Whether it be the misuse of statistics or claims that are simply not factually accurate. The charity recently launched a campaign that calls for MPs to stand up for honesty in the wake of this misinformation crisis. Boris Johnson has, according to Full Fact, misled parliament on several occasions – whether it be his incorrect claims about winter support packages, economic growth, employment levels or even bus passes. The list is endless. This is a poor state of affairs for any Prime Minister, and can only be damaging trust in politics and the effectiveness of the government more generally.

There is no denying that, on occasion, we all get things wrong. In the heat of the moment and the curse of the digital age, it is easy to see how facts might get muddled up, information confused, and things blown generally out of proportion – especially during intense parliamentary exchanges. But Johnson’s consistent misinformation and refusal to correct the record is simply unacceptable.

Boris Johnson’s fast and loose relationship with the truth has set a low standard within central government. He has a culture of rampant misinformation where even the Minister for Culture – Nadine Dorries, who is responsible for tackling misinformation – is complicit in his acts. Not only has Dorries repeatedly echoed the false employment claims of Johnson, but on May 1 she also tweeted a link to a Daily Mail article which used a misleading image depicting the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. The image led many to think Starmer had blatantly broken national Covid-19 restrictions, but it later turned out that the image was taken several years before the pandemic. 

It must also be said that this misinformation culture extends beyond the governing Conservative party – opposition parties have been known to get their facts wrong too. Full Fact has also found a number of cases where comments made by Starmer, especially during Prime Minister’s question time, have been found to be inaccurate or misreported – the most recent example of this being his claim that the economy is not growing. While there is an element of interpretation to this claim (the UK’s minimal growth could be interpreted as stagnation) the robustness of this claim is questionable.

So where do we go from here? It seems that British politics has been scathed by a culture of misinformation, a Prime Minister who is unwilling to correct the record, and an opposition who lacks the numbers to hold him to account. 

Is it time to revisit the rules of parliamentary language after all? Should MPs be able to make allegations of lying more blatantly within the house?

There is no denying that this would quickly eradicate the misinformation culture – ministers would have no excuse but to correct the record if their errors were pointed out to them directly in the chambers. But the subsequent impact this might have on free, effective and good-tempered parliamentary debate must be considered. If MPs can go about accusing their peers of lying, or perhaps something of an even graver nature, without constraint, then the civility of debate would disintegrate, and the effectiveness of parliament would disintegrate with it. This is not a solution, but a further problem in the face of political office.

What is required to change the misinformation culture and ensure free debate remains central to politics is a change in culture – a change which begins from the top.

Boris Johnson is responsible for the culture of his government, and to a wider extent the culture of British politics more generally. While he might be known for his cheek and affable character, Johnson’s disrespect for political etiquette and the office he upholds must be condemned.This is not to say that Johnson must exit office per se, but his attitude towards the truth must change. Until politicians from across the political spectrum understand the full extent of their duties, and the importance of parliamentary etiquette, Britain’s culture of misinformation is here to stay. A parliamentary investigation into whether Johnson misled parliament over Partygate is a step in the right direction, but MPs still have far to go if they wish to change Britain’s political culture for the better.

By Conor Walsh,

A first year reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). I’m fascinated by global inequality and humanitarian crises, with particular interest in the Calais migrant crisis and the affect of the British arms trade on war in Yemen.

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