If the Prime Minister said something he knew to be untrue, does that mean he lied?

Labour MP Dawn Butler was recently kicked out of the Commons for refusing to retract her claim that Boris Johnson is a liar. Though she provided evidence for her claim, she was still asked to leave immediately.

So why is it so wrong to call a spade a spade? 


A victim of hypocrisy?

Butler’s accusation broke the rules on ‘unparliamentary language’. These rules are supposedly in place to ensure ‘politeness’ is maintained in the Commons. However, politeness seems to be a very flexible concept when it comes to the House of Commons, with many picking and choosing when it applies.

Parliamentary debates are standardly so comically rowdy that even those who pay little attention to politics have heard of their unruly nature. Between the jeering, interruptions, and name-calling, the Commons is hardly a lesson in politeness. Nevertheless, the assumption is that there is a place for this in politics. A bit of rambunctiousness is an expected part of debating. Backbenchers must be allowed to really challenge the PM and at times this will involve less than polite language. 

One can concede that calling the Prime Minister a liar isn’t exactly polite. But Butler eloquently explained her reasons for this claim. Her delivery was leagues above the playground-like behaviour we have seen time and time again from MPs’ on all sides. Since the beginning of the pandemic, between Hancock, Cummings and Johnson (to name a few) there have been more scandals than anyone would like to believe. In all of them, high-ranking politicians were caught openly lying to the public. Butler’s well-expressed point was that we must call them out for the benefit of the people. 

One of her more emotive points referred to Johnson’s claim that the link between infections and death had been completely ‘severed’. This is in fact not true. Becoming pedantic over the use of language and preventing an MP from making this very important point is a dangerous form of censorship. If lying means making public statements that deceive, then Dawn Butler is right, Boris Johnson is indeed guilty of being a liar. 

Language games

This issue boils down to pointless semantics. Words can be dangerous so some regulation of language is often needed within the public sphere. However, we do need to reevaluate the criteria for a word being seen as inappropriate or discourteous. The Commons’ guidelines are certainly applicable when there is a clear breach of politeness, such as when Dennis Skinner called a fellow MP a ‘pompous sod’.  Though undeniably amusing, this showed exactly why we need to place a limit on free speech.

The main difference between Skinner’s outburst and Butler’s accusation comes down to the level of objectivity. Skinner was expressing a personal viewpoint with minor factual justification. Butler was able to substantiate her assertion with given facts, placing her accusation in the sphere of objective truth rather than unverified opinion.   But despite a world of difference between Butler’s and Skinner’s statements, the result was just the same.

Politics can’t and shouldn’t always be polite. We may not like the outcome but politicians need some linguistic breathing space to do their job. Isn’t the point of electing MPs to let them speak on our behalf? So let them speak!

Does Parliament care for the truth?

In any state which wants to be called a democracy, the words and actions of those in power must be open to scrutiny. Dawn Butler attempted to do this by outlining evidence that showed Boris Johnson had lied to the British public. Yes, she could have stated the same evidence without using the word ‘lied’, implying the PM is a liar. But then, what would be the point in that? Claiming the economy has grown 73 per cent under the Tories when the real figure is 20 per cent, is a lie. Claiming that the Nursing Bursary had been reinstated, is a lie. The list goes on, as Butler illustrated. And the appropriate linguistic term for someone who tells such lies? Liar. 

This government has lied to us time and time again. It is the responsibility of all MPs to do exactly what Dawn Butler did and call them out.