Parliament’s Bizarre Rules Were On Full Show Yesterday And People Aren’t Having It

"There's something wrong with a parliament where you're thrown out for pointing out someone's a liar rather than for lying."
Boris Johnson and Ian Blackford in the Commons on Monday
Boris Johnson and Ian Blackford in the Commons on Monday
Getty

The Speaker of the Commons’ reaction to both Boris Johnson and Ian Blackford on Monday has sparked online debate about Parliament and its rather bizarre rules.

What happened with Boris Johnson?

In an attack on Sir Keir Starmer, the prime minister alluded to the Labour leader’s past as the director of public prosecution, criticising him as someone “who used his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can see”.

Although fact-checking organisations have pointed out that this is far from true – Starmer was not the lawyer reviewing the serial sex offender Savile’s case – the Speaker of the Commons did not call out Johnson for his claim.

Deputy prime-minister and justice secretary Dominic Raab then refused to repeat Johnson’s claim on Tuesday outside of the Commons – when he did not have parliamentary privilege – because he could “not substantiate it”.

Parliamentary privilege grants MPs certain legal immunities including freedom of speech when speaking inside parliament.

Starmer has since dubbed this particular claim “a ridiculous slur peddled by right wing trolls” and even former Tory minister Julian Smith has called for the prime minister to withdraw it.

Johnson has not since addressed his Savile comment publicly.

Boris Johnson in the Commons on Monday
Boris Johnson in the Commons on Monday
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor via PA Media

What happened with Blackford?

The same courtesy was not extended to the SNP’s Blackford when, just moments later, he said Johnson “misled the house” over the Partygate report, by denying Covid rules had been broken in the past.

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle called on him to withdraw it several times – and say the prime minister “inadvertently” misled the house – but Blackford refused.

Hoyle asked again: “To help me help the house, you’ve withdrawn your earlier comment and replaced it with inadvertently?”

Mr Blackford replied: “It’s not my fault if the prime minister can’t be trusted to tell the truth.”

Hoyle then prepared to throw SNP’s Westminster leader out of the Commons, reading: “Under the power given to me by standing order number 43 I order the honourable member to withdraw immediately from the House.”

Blackford walked out before Hoyle had finished his sentence.

The SNP’s Westminster leader defended his actions on Tuesday, telling Sky News: “I have a responsible to stand up and speak truth to power.

“There’s precedent for me doing what I did.

“I think my constituents and my colleagues would expect me to stand up and say, ‘this man has behaved in a way that is unacceptable’.”

Blackford also told LBC: “On the back of the Sue Gray report today, as much as it is, he ultimately should have gone.”

Twitter has now compared the two events, and something doesn’t seem to be adding up.

Ian Blackford called for the prime minister to step down in the Commons on Monday
Ian Blackford called for the prime minister to step down in the Commons on Monday
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor via PA Media

So, just what are the parliamentary rules?

Deliberately “misleading the house” is a serious issue in Parliament.

Erskine May – the “Bible” of the Commons – reads: “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.

“In 1963, the House resolved that in making a personal statement which contained words which they later admitted not to be true, a former Member had been guilty of a grave contempt.”

However, Erksine May also outlines the Speaker’s duties when it comes to what members of the house say to one another.

It reads: “The Speaker’s responsibility for questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House.

“Responsibilities in other respects rests with the member who proposes to ask the question and responsibility for answers rests with ministers.”

The Speaker has previously spoken about matters related to misleading the House.

Hoyle asking Blackford to withdraw his statement
Hoyle asking Blackford to withdraw his statement
House of Commons - PA Images via Getty Images

Back in March 2021, Hoyle said: “All members should correct the record if they make an inaccurate statement to the House.

“They can do so by raising a point of order or in debate, or in the case of ministers, they can make a statement or issue a written ministerial statement.”

Hoyle added: “The speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.”

The government’s own ministerial code also reads: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

Many people have now called out this apparent inconsistency on Twitter.

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