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A risky game

A risky game

What does it do to a politician, to be caught lying to parliament?


Transcript
NIMO OMER, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story, every day, to make sense of the world.

Today, why being caught lying to parliament can be the riskiest game of all.

***

Over the last week, there’s been one question echoing around the House of Commons.

“Is he now going to do the decent thing, and resign?”

Keir Starmer speaking in parliament

It’s a question directed at the prime minister, Boris Johnson, following the partygate revelations. 

Now, political scandals are nothing new, and calls for politicians to resign are also nothing new.

“She knows that when the politics of the place is broken, you either resign, you go back to the people…”

David Lammy speaking in parliament

“Well the old gentlemen has the right at any time to take his pension and I advise him to do so.””

David Cameron speaking in parliament

“When Lord Carrington resigned over the Falklands, he said it was a matter of honour. Isn’t it time that the Home Secretary considered her honour and resigned?”

Diane Abbott speaking in parliament

The calls to resign you just heard were aimed at Theresa May, Dennis Skinner and Amber Rudd by rivals incensed by failures of policy.

But this situation is different. 

Boris Johnson is accused of lying to parliament. And that’s a pretty rare – and serious – allegation.

Presenter: “Okay so if a prime minister is shown to have lied to parliament, he should resign?”

Dominic Raab: “That is clearly the case under the code for ministers.”

Dominic Raab speaking on GMB

You might be thinking: but politicians lie all the time. We expect that from them.

So why is lying to parliament such a big deal?

***

To understand… we need to go back to the 1960s – to one of the biggest scandals in British politics.

“It was 1963, the year the 60s properly began, the Beatles’ career took off and on newspaper front pages a scandal played out from which the old Britain of establishment privilege never recovered.”

BBC News

John Profumo was a high-flying politician married to an Irish film star. He was Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. 

That was until…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please meet, Christine Keeler…”

Sue Lawley

In the early 1960s John Profumo began an affair with Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model. 

And that attracted the attention of a lot of people. 

Because Christine Keeler was also in a relationship with a man called Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet military expert.    

Remember, this was at the beginning Cold War so it was considered a huge national security risk.

But when rumours started to spread about the couple, John Profumo denied the affair in the House of Commons.


Only that, “Miss Keeler and I were on friendly terms. There was no impropriety whatsoever” in his acquaintanceship with the model.

“I’ve just read the statement he made in the House of Commons this afternoon. It’s a dreadful thing that a man should report in his position of having to do this as a result of entirely baseless rumours and insinuations…”

Stephen Ward

That’s Stephen Ward, a friend of John Profumo, speaking. (He actually introduced John Profumo to Christine Keeler and was also friends with Captain Yevgeny Ivanov.) 

Just weeks after John Profumo denied the affair in parliament, a police investigation found otherwise. It proved that John Profumo had lied to the House of Commons.

He had no choice but to resign from office, parliament and public life. 

So, why is it a career-ending move to lie to parliament?

***

So as I said earlier, you’re probably thinking, politicians lie all the time. On TV, on the radio…

Well, obviously – they shouldn’t do it. But, of course it isn’t a criminal offence to lie to a journalist. 

But when it’s lying to parliament, politicians are subject to different standards. 

The ministerial code is a set of rules and principles which outlines the standards of conduct for government ministers. 

It’s not law but it is official guidance, and here are a couple of its key golden rules: “holders of public office should be truthful,” and “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

There are many people who believe, when it comes to partygate – all of those events, the leaving dos, the drinks in the garden at Number 10, that Boris Johnson has lied to parliament about what he knew. 

And that would be breaking the ministerial code. 

Here’s former Conservative Cabinet member David Davis speaking in parliament this week.

“…but I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite of that so I’ll remind him of a quotation altogether too familiar to him of Leo Amery to Neville Chamberlain, ‘You have sat there too long for all the good you have done in the name of God go’.”

David Davis speaking in Parliament

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former aide, has even said he would “swear under oath” that the prime minister knew the gathering on 20 May 2020 was a party. 

This is Boris Johnson speaking in parliament last week…

“I believed implicitly that this was a work event…”

Boris Johnson speaking in parliament

And when pushed again on Sky News this week… 

“No, nobody told me what we were doing was as you say against the rules, that the event in question was something that… wasn’t a work event…”

Boris Johnson, Sky News

So, what happens next?

***

Now all eyes are on one senior civil servant. Sue Gray. 

Everyone seems to know that name now. But until recently she was known around Westminster as the most powerful person you’ve never heard of.

She’s leading an inquiry that is gathering evidence to find out exactly what happened at several of these parties and gatherings in Whitehall. 

And her report might prove that Boris Johnson knew he was attending a party on 20 May 2020, or that someone had told him it was against the rules. And if that’s the case, well, he lied. To parliament. 

John Profumo had no choice but to resign once he was caught out. But he wasn’t the prime minister.

And the thing about the ministerial code is it’s ultimately up to the prime minister to decide how to interpret and enforce it.  

So Boris Johnson will have to decide whether Boris Johnson broke the ministerial code – and whether Boris Johnson should have to resign. 

If he was looking for an example from history, there is life after resignation. John Profumo went from scandal and disgrace to lead a life of public service, devoting himself to charity in the impoverished East End of London.

Boris Johnson may decide to take no action against Boris Johnson. 

But there is one inescapable truth at play, his fate may be decided for him – by backbench MPs who have lost confidence in him as a leader and an election winner. 

First, we wait for Sue Gray.

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.


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