Boris Johnson India lying lie to parliament
Politicians

Mercy, forgiveness and judgment: Boris Johnson did not lie to Parliament

If you detest Boris Johnson or blame him for the great evil of Brexit and for ruining the country and just want him gone, there’s no need to read on. There can be no mercy or forgiveness for the loathsome politician who represents everything you despise: only judgment and the lake of fire are a fitting end, and so the axe must swiftly fall, or the faggots be lit and the flames hastened. So please don’t waste your time reading any further, because nothing written here will cause you to reflect on your personal prejudice or change your fixed mind. Have a good weekend.

The question before us is whether Boris Johnson wilfully misled the House of Commons when he said he had not attended any parties in Downing Street during the Covid lockdown, and had obeyed all the rules. That ‘wilfully’ is important, because inadvertently misleading the House is not a resigning matter (though some ministers have certainly done so): the expectation is usually of a swift mea culpa and correction of the parliamentary record. MPs are usually forgiving of other honourable members whose honour has been unwittingly bruised.

And so Thursday’s debate on whether to refer Boris Johnson to the Standards and Privileges Committee to determine whether he wilfully misled the House was a deeply moral one, if not a profoundly Christian one, with honourable and right honourable members invoking God and Scripture rather more than the average archbishop tends to:

Chris Bryant: It all got a bit religious earlier and I felt like I was back at theological college. Being, I think, the only person in the House who can actually pronounce absolution on anybody, I thought I was suddenly going to get a new job!

..Steve Baker: The right hon. Gentleman heard what I said on Tuesday. He is a brother in Christ. Does he not believe in redemption?

..Emma Hardy: I wonder whether it is worth pointing out to the House that, before we can have Christian forgiveness, we must first have confession and contrition, neither of which we have seen from the Prime Minister.

..Steve Baker: What am I to say to that man, who did not see his wife before she died? I could say, “You and I are Christian men, and forgiveness is hard.”

..Alexander Stafford: We have talked about Christian forgiveness. I am a Christian—a Catholic—and this is a Christian country. Forgiveness is at the core of what we believe. The Prime Minister has offered a heartfelt apology and his contrition.

..Tim Farron: I do not know how contrite the Prime Minister is. I do not know how sincere his repentance, or his apology. Only two beings know the answer to that question, and I will not make any assumption that I know it, because I am definitely not one of them. I will say this, however. I believe—and this is one of the most radical and offensive things about Christianity—that forgiveness is available for everything and for everyone. However, even forgiven sins bear consequences.

On Tuesday, Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, talked of mercy and forgiveness being the fruits of repentance, and he was inclined to absolve the Prime Minister of misleading Parliament – if misleading Parliament is what he did – because it was the Christian thing to do. But just two days later, this meek and mild approach had turned to fire and brimstone, and now is time for judgment:

When I sat here and listened to the Prime Minister’s words, I was deeply moved. For all that I have said that if he broke the law, acquiesced in breaking the law or lied at the Dispatch Box, he must go, I still felt moved to forgive. But I want to be honest to the House, and to my voters, and say that that spirit of earnest willingness to forgive lasted about 90 seconds of the 1922 Committee meeting, which I am sorry to say was its usual orgy of adulation. It was a great festival of bombast, and I am afraid that I cannot bear such things. This level of transgression and this level of demand for forgiveness requires more than an apology in order to draw a line under it and move on in the way that the Prime Minister sought to do overnight with his interviews.

I am sorry to be saying that on the record like this, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister and those who advise him need to understand that this is a permanent stone in his shoe. Those of us who want to forgive him have to see permanent contrition, a permanent change of attitude and permanent acknowledgement of people such as my constituent who did not get to see his wife in a care home on their 50th wedding anniversary. I think he saw her only through a window on her 75th birthday. I have been married for only 25 years, but I know what that would mean to me. What am I to say to that man, who did not see his wife before she died? I could say, “You and I are Christian men, and forgiveness is hard.”

I do not like forgiving the Prime Minister. My spirit is much more full of wrath and vengeance. I feel much more Ezekiel 7:3 about this issue, and I invite everybody to look that up. I do not want to forgive our Prime Minister. The trouble is that I like him and helped him to get where he is—I will come back to that in a moment—and the problem is that I am under a command to forgive.

I will talk about what the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) said. When I and others went out of our way not only to make my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but to do our bit—in my case, systematically—to help get an 80-seat majority, of course we did not think that he would exhibit a meticulous grasp of tedious and boring minute rules. But we did know that he had two jobs: he had to get us out of the European Union, which he was fully committed to doing, and he had to defeat the radical leaders of the Labour party. He had to do so in an environment in which everyone was exhausted, we were testing our constitution to destruction, and the internal stability of the United Kingdom was at stake. That is the job we gave him to do, and by goodness he did it. For that I am thankful, and he will live with my thanks forever. He deserves to be lauded in the history books.

The problem that I now have, having watched what I would say was beautiful, marvellous contrition, is that the Prime Minister’s apology lasted only as long as it took to get out of the headmaster’s study. That is not good enough for me, and it is not good enough for my voters—I am sorry, but it is not. I am afraid that I now have to acknowledge that if the Prime Minister occupied any other office of senior responsibility—if he were a Secretary of State, a Minister of State, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary, a permanent secretary, a director general, a chief executive of a private company or a board director—he would be long gone. The reason that he is not long gone is that it is an extremely grave matter to remove a sitting Prime Minister, and goodness knows I have had something to do with that too. It is an extremely grave matter and an extremely big decision, and it tends to untether history. All of us should approach such things with reverence, awe and an awareness of the difficulty of doing it and the potential consequences.

That is why I have been tempted to forgive, but I have to say that the possibility of that has now gone. I am sorry, but for not obeying the letter and the spirit of the law—we have heard that the Prime Minister knew what the letter was—the Prime Minister should now be long gone. I will certainly vote for the motion but, really, the Prime Minister should just know that the gig is up.

Steve Baker’s mind was changed because, as surmised here a few days ago, the Prime Minister’s contrition was just for the cameras: in the meeting of the ’22 following Tuesday’s debate, he immediately reverted to his customary arrogance, overbearing haughtiness and boastful bombast. This wasn’t acceptable to Mr Baker, for whom repentance must involve a change of heart, and contrition be an enduring disposition.

But that just isn’t Boris Johnson.

And whatever you think of the man or his (a)morality or his tenuous relationship with honesty, integrity, openness and accountability, indulging in an “orgy of adulation.. a great festival of bombast” isn’t a bar to being Prime Minister. And neither is being arrogant, boastful, overbearing, conceited or proud.

The question before us is whether Boris Johnson wilfully misled the House of Commons when he said he had not attended any parties in Downing Street during the Covid lockdown and had obeyed all the rules, and this hinges on how one defines ‘party’, how one understands the rules, and whether his attendance at these gatherings was covert or otherwise concealed in order to deceive Parliament (and the public).

Since the official No.10 photographer was apparently present at many of these gatherings, presumably with the Prime Minister’s full knowledge and consent, it could hardly be argued that the gatherings were surreptitious because they were shameful. And since senior civil servants were not only present at some of these gathering but also issuing invitations, it can hardly be argued that the gatherings were believed at the time to be in breach of the rules as they understood them.

And since No.10 is not only the Prime Minister’s place of work but also his home, it is easy to see how he (and the Chancellor of the Exchequer) might be “ambushed with a cake” just before a Cabinet meeting on his 56th birthday, and believe a nine-minute attendance to be proportionately tolerable and courteous to those who had gone to the effort to surprise him.

And since the garden of No.10 is an extension of the house, and Covid was known to be spread less virulently outdoors than it did inside a cramped office, it is easy to see how working outdoors on a hot summer’s day might be deemed to be a sensible thing to do, even with a bottle of wine.

Boris Johnson Birthday Party Times March 2020And since the Prime Minister’s birthday cake gathering was reported in the Times the day after it happened, and absolutely nobody – not even the Metropolitan Police or the Leader of the Opposition – deemed it then to constitute a breach of the law, such that it merited a Fixed Penalty Notice, it is easy to see how the Prime Minister honestly thought that such a gathering was within the law when he told the House of Commons that he had obeyed all the rules.

And since Crown Property (which No.10 Downing Street is) was exempt from Covid regulations, and since the regulations specified that gatherings were allowed in all public buildings, or parts of them “operated by a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution or a public body” (the later of which necessarily extends to government, local or national), it is easy to see how the Prime Minister honestly thought that such a gathering was within the law when he told the House of Commons that he had obeyed all the rules.

And since there is a cogent legal opinion in the Spectator by barrister Steven Barrett, arguing quite persuasively that lying isn’t simply a matter of politics or opinion, but of law:

A lie is defined in the dictionary as a factual statement that is untrue and made with intent to deceive. In the leading case of R v Lucas [1981] Q.B. 720 the courts found a lie must be ‘deliberate’. The PM could not possibly have lied by telling the house that he believed the Covid laws were followed – not unless he deliberately knew the law was against him. There is no way he fulfils the legal test – because no one knows today if the law is actually against him.

And since the law, he says, is uncertain on this matter (to the extent that barristers differ in their legal opinions, and so do police forces in the severity of their judgments), it is easy to see how the Prime Minister honestly thought that such a gathering was within the law when he told the House of Commons that he had obeyed all the rules. “At most he was confused on the law,” the Barrister maintains.

As, it seems, are the police, politicians, and lawyers. Mr Barret continues:

Without legal certainty, there can never have been any lie. Parliament cannot make windows into the PM’s soul – if he says he believed the law wasn’t broken, there is no lie. Errors, mistakes, are not deliberate acts intended to deceive – if there even is an error.

But if legal certainty comes later, by a court ruling, then it doesn’t apply retrospectively. All cases are lost by someone and it is not customary to have the losing barrister subsequently accused of ‘lying’. We have courts and appeal courts for a reason.

So it is perfectly possible, even likely, that the Prime Minister believed with all his heart that he had broken no law and so did not lie to Parliament. Of course, none of this will persuade those who never believed Boris Johnson was a fit and proper person to hold that Great Office of State; or who vehemently oppose(d) Brexit; or who disagree with his ‘Green’ policies or the Northern Ireland Protocol or his timid advancement of ‘Global Britain’; or who just generally loathe Tories. They simply want him gone, and the allegation that he lied to Parliament is something of a gift. But if he did not lie; that is, if he did not knowingly, wilfully deceive the House of Commons, then the inclination to Ezekiel 7:3 must be tempered with Matthew 5:7, because bearing false witness is a terrible offence against God.

Unless, of course, you believe with all your heart that you are not doing so.