Can the speaker punish Boris Johnson? Commons rules as Lindsay Hoyle rebukes PM

Ian Blackford ordered to leave Commons by Lindsay Hoyle

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Yesterday’s dramatic Commons bout was the latest in a series following the numerous revelations of lockdown breaking Downing Street parties. The threadbare 12-page report “update” delivered by senior civil servant Sue Gray caused anger as she concluded staff and the Prime Minister failed to abide by rules they had set for the public between 2020 and 2021. Amid palpable anger in the lower chamber, both sides threw out accusations, but only Ian Blackford received retribution from House Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

Equipped with the report update, some MPs alleged Mr Johnson “misled” the House of Commons, a resigning offence for most ministers.

Ian Blackford was the only MP to explicitly call him out for lying, stating Mr Johnson “wilfully misled Parliament”.

The Speaker, following Commons custom, expelled the SNP’s Westminster leader from the chamber after he refused to change his statement to “inadvertently misled”.

Sir Lindsay asking Mr Blackford to leave was the first time he acted on the custom that day, despite the Prime Minister’s use of a “slur” towards Sir Keir Starmer.

Replying to the Labour leader’s follow-up address, Mr Johnson claimed Sir Keir used “his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile” while Director of Public Prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in 2009.

The claim, as highlighted by several fact-checkers, was demonstrably false.

While he was head of the CPS at the time in question, Sir Keir was not the lawyer in charge of deciding whether or not to prosecute Savile.

Sir Keir branded the statement a “ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls”, and members of the PM’s own party have since called on him to return to Commons and retract it.

But the Prime Minister’s spokesperson has said he “stands by” what he said.

The Speaker updated the House of Commons in a follow-up statement today, in which he touched on Mr Johnson’s words.

He said that “nothing disorderly occurred” procedurally, warning “such allegations should not be made lightly”.

But he added he was “far from satisfied that the comments in question were appropriate on this occasion”.

People have questioned why Mr Blackford’s comments and those offered by the PM demanded different actions.

The answer lies in centuries of Parliamentary custom serving Speakers still have to follow.

Can the Speaker punish Boris Johnson?

British constitutional theorist Thomas Erskine May, a 19th century House of Commons clerk, outlined Parliamentary conduct in 1844.

His document, aptly named Erskine May, outlines “Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament”.

Within is a section on “unparliamentary language” that dictates what MPs can and cannot say during a session.

The document comes down particularly hard on “abusive language” and accusations of lying.

Abusive or insulting language used during a debate is “required to be withdrawn immediately”.

And serious “accusations of deliberate falsehood” are only allowed on a “substantive motion”.

Outside of this situation, the Commons procedure views it as a breach of rules and will eject people who don’t withdraw a statement.

The Prime Minister is also beholden to the rules of Parliament, so would have to follow any actions – such as ejection – taken by the Speaker.

Over the last few years, Speaker Hoyle has outlined it is not his responsibility to determine truthfulness.

Speakers must also follow Parliamentary conduct, with their responsibility for questions “limited to their compliance with the rules of the House”.

Sir Lindsay affirmed this when in March 2021, he said the Speaker “cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not”, he added it was a “matter of political debate”.

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