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‘Good Chaps’ Left the Building a While Ago, Britain – It’s Time to Wake Up

Hardeep Matharu argues that Labour MP Dawn Butler’s removal from the House of Commons after calling Boris Johnson a ‘liar’ finally exposed the structural failings at the heart of the British state

Labour MP Dawn Butler leaves the House of Commons after calling Boris Johnson a ‘liar’ on 22 July 2021. Photo: House of Commons/PA Images/Alamy

As Dawn Butler was ejected from the House of Commons for calling the Prime Minister a “liar”, the system itself exposed just how broken it really is. 

Britain’s unwritten constitution, largely based on norms and conventions and predicated on the notion that ‘good chaps’ will hold the reins of power, is no longer fit for purpose – if it ever really was – in the face of bad actors unwilling to play by the rules.

How is it that we have a political system which – at once – allows its Prime Minister to repeatedly lie and make misleading statements at the despatch box and punishes those who dare to call this out?

Under parliamentary rules, MPs are not allowed to accuse each other of lying in the Commons. And so, in response to the Labour MP’s speech yesterday, which highlighted how Boris Johnson has lied to the public during the Coronavirus crisis, the Acting Deputy Speaker asked her to withdraw from the chamber for the rest of the day.

Johnson has not been required to correct the record in the Commons over his many misleading statements – which have been catalogued by the journalist Peter Oborne and others – and is hardly ever robustly challenged by the Speaker when he repeats them weekly in Prime Minister’s Questions. 

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Each time another lie is told or another minister fails to tender his resignation following another scandal of incompetence or corruption, or both, we are all left wondering: how will this Government – which appears to care not a jot for integrity and honour – be held to account? Where did accountability and decency go?

But, unless and until the structural failings at the heart of the British state are recognised, our politics will always remain susceptible to dark forces seeking to subvert the system for their own ends. The election of Boris Johnson, and his transatlantic twin Donald Trump, has shown that boundaries can be pushed and the political landscape fundamentally altered. 

There is nothing to compel Johnson to demand greater accountability of his ministers or to offer greater responsibility himself. As the Ministerial Code – a guide rather than a guard-rail – states: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.” It makes no mention of to whom Prime Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament should present themselves.

When Matt Hancock resigned as Health and Social Care Secretary last month, the rare move was not motivated by any number of his failings around the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic but triggered by a tabloid exposé about an extra-marital affair with an aide he had hired. 

His breach of social distancing rules by kissing her made his position untenable, rather than any dent to his honour that the care homes scandal, the shambles of ‘Test and Trace’, the cronyism around PPE contracts, or 150,000 people’s deaths from COVID-19 had caused. But, there was nothing to compel his resignation in relation to any of these life-or-death mistakes.

That the mainstream media applied significant pressure to Hancock over his affair shows that it could have held him to account over matters of public interest – if it had wanted to.

And therein lies another big problem. The British political system’s constitutional failings currently have no antidote in the form of a robust and independent free press which sees its democratic duty as acting as the ‘fourth estate’. In this country, it is predominantly the private interests of wealthy media proprietors which are advanced, in partnership with their political allies, rather than the public interest. The Prime Minister’s former chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, alluded to this when he claimed that Boris Johnson refers to the Telegraph newspaper as his “real boss”.

But the newspapers are not alone in this. The BBC, once renowned for its trustworthiness, has failed to hold politicians to account amidst a backdrop of a divisive Brexit and rising nationalist populism. 

In the same week as Dawn Butler was removed from the House of Commons, the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg finally asked Cummings about why he had misled the public by placing ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ on the side of a red bus and suggesting that people from Turkey would soon be arriving in Britain as the country was imminently joining the EU. This came five years too late. 

The Vote Leave chief smirked as his tactics were recalled and claimed responsibility for a takeover of British democracy that he and a few others had engineered in order to apparently rewire the entire system. In the hour-long interview, Kuenssberg still did not ask Cummings about the Vote Leave campaign’s connections to the now-defunct data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica or its breaking of electoral law. 

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Meanwhile, Cummings’ latest revelations – many of them highlighting the Prime Minister’s unfitness for office and lies, for which he claims he has evidence – have been buried by the majority of the mainstream media.

Sometimes it takes an instinctive moment in time to encapsulate an entire principle. By calling Boris Johnson a liar in the House of Commons and leaving the chamber, Dawn Butler exposed the absurdity of a system which enables those in the highest positions of power to lie with impunity and sanctions those who dare to call this out – all in the name of an archaic convention designed to facilitate honour.  

Such a system is vulnerable. It is also dangerous.

Good chaps left the building a while ago, Britain. It’s time to wake up.

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