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‘Wales Could Lead the Way Across the Globe if it Criminalises Political Lying’

A dishonest doctor gets struck off the medical register. The banker who steals from his clients goes to jail. A deceitful military officer gets cashiered. Why should politicians not expect to play by the same rules?

Then Chancellor Rishi Sunak and then Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

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This week one of the filthiest election campaigns in British political history draws to its sordid close. 

Again and again, the Conservative Government has been caught out in fraud, lying, and deception. 

Keir Starmer’s Labour is better, partly because an opposition party has no record in office to lie about. But its manifesto left a bad taste in the mouth, after it dumped the 10 pledges he made to the party membership when he ran for the Labour leadership four years ago.

There is no question that the virus of political lying has invaded British public life, starting with Boris Johnson’s premiership and carrying on with Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

That is why I believe that the proposal by Plaid Cymru to turn political lying – knowingly misleading the public – into a criminal offence could not be more timely or desperately needed.

It will be voted on in the Welsh Parliament tomorrow. If passed, those found guilty of deception will not go to jail – the fate that awaits fraudsters outside politics – but will be banned for four years from running from office. 

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The plan was supported by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives when it went through committee stage at the Senedd. But it’s touch and go whether it can command a majority when it is voted on tomorrow. 

Many formidable opponents are against it. Writing in the Spectator, Toby Young of the Free Speech Union has denounced it as “the latest salvo in an ongoing campaign being waged by activists of various stripes to ‘clean up’ British politics and ‘raise standards’ in public life”. He calls the criminalisation of political lying “a device for one political tribe – the professional managerial class – to impose its will on the other – the populist disruptors”. 

Young complains that the proposal would hand judges the ultimate responsibility of deciding whether politicians have lied. “Don’t be fooled that the Welsh bill is a benign effort to keep politicians honest,” Young argues. “On the contrary, it’s an assault on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.”

It’s a well-made and honest argument, and it deserves to be tackled head on.

Young ignores the unhappy truth that our political system has proved incapable of  confronting the toxic problem of political lying over the last quarter century. Many of these lies have had terrible consequences.

Think of Johnson’s deeply dishonest “get Brexit done” pledge which secured the Tory’s knock-out victory in 2019. The deceitful promise of 40 new hospitals. The grotesque falsehoods over the pandemic and Partygate.

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Going further back, we should remember the well-documented lies used by Johnson and his allies to secure victory in the 2016 Brexit Referendum

Most notorious of all was Tony Blair’s lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Used as the excuse to invade Iraq, it unleashed hell across the Middle East, as well as the death of 179 brave British soldiers.

Two decades later, Blair and those who aided and abetted his lies have never been held to account for the damage they caused. Indeed, some of Blair’s lies remain to this day on the Hansard record. 

In theory, the British Parliament has a system of policing lies. In practice, I am afraid it doesn’t work.

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle utterly failed to hold in check the epidemic of lies, falsehoods, and misleading statements from Johnson and Sunak.

For the last five years, both were allowed to get away with making deceitful statements from the despatch box without punishment or rebuke. To be fair to the Commons Speaker, he felt he had no powers to punish or even to rebuke a Prime Minister who lies. 


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His problem was that the House of Commons operates on the assumption that MPs are ‘honourable’ men and women who tell the truth. This view might sound like just misty-eyed romanticism about the honesty of public figures. But a  better foundation lies behind this view. This rule exists to prevent Commons debates from turning into a shouting match as members attack each others’ good faith.

This polite convention had worked reasonably well for hundreds of years, but Johnson ruthlessly exploited the fact that this rule gave him impunity to lie to MPs.  

The Ministerial Code is supposed to act as a second buttress against political lying by forcing ministers who mislead Parliament to correct the record. This system has never been properly enforced in recent years. In fact, it works in reverse. The House of Commons rule that MPs must not accuse each other of dishonesty actually protects liars such as Boris Johnson from being challenged.

The third check on political lying is supposed to be the press. The difficulty here is that the contemporary media sees its job as echoing and amplifying the lies of successive prime ministers rather than holding them to account. 

The majority of British newspapers minimised, denied or simply ignored Johnson and Sunak’s habitual and reckless deceit. Indeed, some journalists went further and collaborated with Downing Street, themselves playing an important role in the production and dissemination of the lies and false statements produced by a dishonest Government. 

Historians will marvel in particular at the complicity of the Murdoch press, Associated Newspapers, and the Telegraph group.  

This is why I am certain that we need to toughen the rules.

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Remember, that outside politics lying has serious consequences. A dishonest doctor gets struck off the medical register. The banker who steals from his clients goes to jail. A deceitful military officer gets cashiered. Why should politicians not expect to play by the same rules?

As the philosopher Emmanuel Kant proved 250 years ago, politicians who deceive us take away the most precious thing we possess: our common humanity. If we cast our vote on the back of false information because a politician lied, he steals from us our democratic rights as a citizen and human being.

This is not just a British problem. In the United States, Donald Trump is given a favourite’s chance to return to the White House, despite having uttered an estimated 30,000 – 30,000 – lies during his first term in office.

In Russia, they’ve still got Vladimir Putin. In India, Narendra Modi. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. And so on.

That is why I believe that Wales can light a beacon, not just for Britain, but also the entire world if the Senedd votes on Tuesday to make political lying a criminal offence.

Consider this: all of the great democratic reforms – New Zealand’s decision that women should be allowed to vote being the most glorious example – started in just one country. After the Kiwis led the way in 1881, something that once seemed unthinkable started to be copied by others, and then the domino effect took over and female suffrage became a worldwide movement. 

I believe that, if the Welsh Parliament can lead the way by passing a law that criminalises political deceit, then the nation will have struck a blow not just in Britain but across the globe against the poison of political lying.

Peter Oborne’s website – Lies, Falsehoods and Misrepresentations from Boris Johnson to Keir Starmer – can be accessed here

Peter Oborne is a diarist for the Byline Times monthly print edition. He is the author of ‘Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism’ (2021), and ‘The Rise of Political Lying’ (2005)

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