“Say whatever you like. You’ll probably get away with it”

 “A Scout’s honour is to be trusted”.
“1st Windlesham Scouts” by jaywood_uk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This is the tale of one man’s attempts to hold a politician to account for his public utterances – utterances which some would say represent an over-sized helping of double standards. If this interests you and you are one of those who, like me, are inclined to exclaim, “You effing liar” whenever a current Tory politician is asked to give their views on, well, almost anything really, then read on…

On 9 May 2021, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was interviewed on Andrew Marr’s BBC Sunday morning show. Gove was asked repeatedly if the Westminster government would seek to stop a second referendum on Scottish independence. Referring to the Scottish Parliamentary elections held three days previously, he told Marr

“In the constituencies, more people voted for parties that were opposed to a referendum.”

Gove’s reply seems unequivocal. He claimed twice that there is no popular mandate for ‘Indyref 2’ – despite the SNP winning the majority of seats in Holyrood (64 out of 129) and the largest vote share (44.2 per cent) of any single party.

The Marr interview was seen by Peter Roberts (aka ‘Pedr ap Robat’), whose name may be familiar to readers of West Country Voices as an occasional contributor and writer of acerbic social media posts, regularly taking aim at the top-table unicorn-jockeys of Brexit past and present, and their Brexity camp-followers.

Considering Gove’s assertion about ‘Indyref 2’ in light of the vote share in the 2019 general election – when only 43.6 per cent of the total votes cast were for the Conservatives – double standards seem to be operating. Peter detected a significant inconsistency, and wrote to Gove accordingly:

Yesterday you told Andrew Marr that there was no mandate for a Scottish independence referendum because, regardless of the number of seats gained, a numerical majority of Scots voters favoured parties that oppose holding [a referendum] in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.

In 2019 your party won a majority in a UK general election that you said was fought on a clear issue: “Get Brexit Done” (or not). A numerical majority of voters chose parties either opposed to Brexit or seeking a confirmatory referendum. Yet you claimed a mandate to press ahead regardless. Please can you explain how and why you take a markedly different view of the respective mandates conferred by these two elections, the UK one in 2019 and the Scottish one in 2021?

Should you invoke Parliamentary protocol and refuse to answer me because I’m not your constituent, I know of a constituent of yours who is happy to ask the same question. I therefore request that, to save everyone’s time and effort, you give an honest explanation now rather than later.”

Polite and succinct, I think you’ll agree.

Having heard nothing from Gove – despite further emails – Peter contacted his office for a fourth time on 4 June. A press officer for The Union Directorate of the Cabinet Office replied on 10 June, stressing the importance the government placed upon the Union with Scotland and stating its opposition to a second referendum. Nothing more.

By mid-August, Peter had sent seven emails to Gove asking him specifically to address the charge that “you have been deliberately misleading and…you are consequently avoiding your duty of accountability as a democratic minister responsible to the public for your position.”

Silence from Gove. On 28 August (the day, incidentally, when Gove appeared in a bizarre performance on the dance floor of an Aberdeen nightclub), Peter emailed a formal letter of complaint against the minister to the Cabinet Office. Two weeks later, back came an exact copy of the letter sent by an official from the union directorate.

Next avenue to explore: the Parliamentary Ombudsman, maybe? According to the website, such matters, sadly, fall outside its remit. Try a complaint to the Conservative Party itself, it helpfully suggests – which Peter did, on 10 October, citing two alleged contraventions of the Nolan Principles – in this case ‘Honesty’ and ‘Leadership’ – and two of the rules in the Party’s own Code of Conduct.

Astonishingly, the Party’s investigating officer responded the very next day: “I must dismiss your complaint as this matter does not fall under the remit of the Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct states: “In no way should anything in this Code interfere with an elected representative carrying out his or her duties and exercising his or her judgement in relation to his or her work…”

Undaunted, Peter asked the Conservative Party’s complaints office to re-examine the issue. Nothing. He asked them to whom he could take the complaint instead. Yet more silence. 

Next option: a letter to the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, to ask whether they could investigate the complaint, and if not, who could? To their credit, they replied quickly. “Sorry, we can’t investigate alleged matters of dishonesty in politicians’ public statements – that’s outside our remit. Try the Conservative Party complaints office”. (I paraphrase.)

They offered a further option: write to the Committee on Standards – not to complain about Gove’s alleged dishonesty (which is outside their remit of course!) but to raise concerns about the Code of Conduct itself.

On the same day, 29 October 2021, Peter received a further email clarifying the situation, from the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner: “A Minister’s conduct when carrying out their ministerial responsibilities is regulated through the Ministerial Code, which is issued by the Prime Minister. There is no formal route for members of the public to submit allegations of breaches of that Code, but it is open to you to write directly to the Prime Minister’s office if you believe that there has been a breach. When a breach is alleged to have taken place, whether it is investigated is entirely at the Prime Minister’s discretion.”

So that same day, off went a formal letter of complaint about Gove to Johnson’s office at No.10. Then – silence. Nothing. Peter sent three “chasing” emails to No.10. A month went by; still nothing. Then on 30 November, a terse acknowledgement from an unnamed person stating simply, “Your message has been passed to the relevant Government Department for their attention.” Which department would that be?

Michael Gove’s department – of course.

Peter repeatedly tried to email his original complaint back to the Prime Minister’s Office, only to have it blocked on each attempt.

‘Try your MP’, it was suggested. It’s Steve Baker. Yes, THAT Steve Baker.

Peter Roberts’s conclusion?

Regardless of the merits of my complaint against Gove, this is a scandal – I choose the word deliberately. It appears that, for all the apparent obsession with accountability and moral hygiene in politics – and the many bodies charged with monitoring and enforcement – a UK citizen can’t have a complaint against a serving politician even considered, let alone acted upon”.

With acknowledgement to Monty Python. The dead ‘accountability’ parrot. Screengrab.

Jolyon Maugham QC’s Good Law Project has made successful and concerted efforts to hold this government to account in the courts on a range of issues recently, and their work continues, funded by public donations. That said, perhaps Gina Miller and her team are just waiting for the right moment to step up once more, flushed with their two historic victories from what seems like so long ago now…

Yet, as Peter has found, it would seem all-but-impossible to hold a politician’s feet to the fire for their words and deeds. That seems both curious and deeply troubling in 2022.

Accountability’ (noun). Definition:  the fact of being responsible for your decisions or actions and expected to explain them when you are asked. (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries)