Analysis: Calling Boris Johnson a liar won’t make the truth any clearer

In the winter of 2019, I attended a Downing Street Christmas drinks reception for the lobby – a traditional event hosted by the Prime Minister for journalists.

Speaking fresh from a result that saw him finally see off the Jeremy Corbyn project and deliver a massive majority, Boris Johnson thanked journalists for their contribution, specifically in “repeating ‘Get Brexit Done’”.

It speaks to the bizarre dynamics of political journalism, where we repeat lines given to us from the political parties as news.

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Consider the Prime Minister’s promise during the general election of 40 new hospitals and 20,000 police officers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused of lying on the last day before recess.

Both these claims are problematic. With the former, it actually meant improving hospitals that already exist, while with the latter the new officers don’t make up for the number slashed during austerity under his party.

Neither of these pledges are lies, but as journalists all we could do is show the problems with the claims while reporting them, we don’t generally outright call them lies.

And the same problem lies, pun intended, in the UK Parliament.

Last week Labour MP Dawn Butler was asked to leave after she refused to withdraw her claim that Mr Johnson had lied “over and over again”.

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The SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford had been in similar position, having to withdraw his own comments earlier this year saying Mr Johnson was "sacked not once, but twice for lying".

It’s a rare quirk of parliamentary procedure where calling someone a liar is not considered within the boundaries of parliamentary etiquette.

That the Prime Minister was sacked twice for lying, or has lied to the Commons is irrelevant.

Now Ms Butler, along with the former House of Commons speaker John Bercow, are calling for the rules to change, complaining it's possible to lie to millions and be "protected by an ancient rule".

That may be, but changing such a rule could have far more serious ramifications to the tone of our debate.

What of the SNP MP, who says Scotland would be better off financially if it was independent, or when Mr Johnson says absolute poverty and relative poverty have declined because he’s citing different figures to Sir Keir Starmer?

Boris Johnson is a liar, but when so much of politics is interpretation, being able to say so won't make things any clearer.

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