Ministers and misleading Parliament
For some months, voices both inside and outside Parliament have been hectoring the Government for disclosure of Brexit ‘impact assessments’ in relation to more than fifty sectors of the UK economy. Many politicians, journalists and members of the general public had understood that numerous statements made by the Brexit Secretary David Davis actually meant that such assessments were being prepared, and would be made available in due course. However, on 6th December, Mr Davis unexpectedly crumbled and admitted that no such assessments had ever existed.
Predictably, this announcement did not go down well. The SNP described the whole situation as an “ongoing farce”, whilst the New Statesman pitched the Secretary of State’s explanation at about the same level of excuse as “The dog ate my homework.” It is a tragic irony that this should come to light at the same time that headlines about the Profumo Affair reappeared in the British media, following the death of Christine Keeler.
John Profumo was a cabinet minister in the 1960s, who had an affair with a young model, Christine Keeler. When questioned about this in the House of Commons, however, Profumo denied that ‘any impropriety’ had taken place. Nevertheless, his deception rapidly became untenable, and a few weeks later a shamed Profumo was obliged to confess that he had misled the House. To make matters even worse, it was rumoured that Keeler had also been sexually involved with a Soviet naval attaché. Given that Profumo was Secretary of State for War, and that the Cold War was at its height, this was a messy situation to say the very least. He was forced to resign, and the whole debacle was a significant factor in the Macmillan government, of which Profumo was a part, losing the 1964 General Election.
Of course, the two situations are extremely different, and it would be wrong to suggest that David Davis told a deliberate lie in the same way as Profumo. In the current situation, everything turns on how words are understood and exactly what was or was not meant by “impact assessments”. Nevertheless, both instances are reminders of how important the accuracy of Ministerial statements in Parliament is within the UK Constitution. The legislature cannot fulfil its function of monitoring (and where necessary restraining) the behaviour of the executive (Government), unless it is provided with reliable information. If Parliament is kept in the dark, or led up the garden path, there can be no effective democratic accountability.
Ministers who are careless about their Parliamentary declarations can, therefore, expect to be upbraided for this, and any who consciously deceive are unlikely to have any political future should the truth emerge. Ministers who mislead the UK Parliament must resign or be dismissed, and it is also interesting, but unsurprising, that the Scottish Ministerial Code has made this expectation explicit in relation to Scottish Government. Trust and integrity are precious commodities, and very hard to repair once damaged.
Impact assessments of Brexit on the UK don’t exist (BBC News 6/12/17)
The many times David Davis talked about the Brexit analysis he says doesn’t exist (New Statesman 6/12/17)
Christine Keeler dead: Model at centre of Profumo affair dies aged 75 (The Independent 6/12/17)
Obituary: John Profumo (BBC News 6/10/2006)
Scottish Ministerial Code (Para 1.1 (c) )