Firstly, it depends if they’re actually in office. It is possible to impeach British politicians – that is, remove them from office for misdeeds – if the offence is grievous enough. However we haven’t seen impeachment in some considerable time. It was first used against Queen Caroline in 1820 and it hasn’t been tried since 1848 when Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was accused of concluding a secret treaty with Russia. Very different times. Perhaps it’s time we revived it. People have tried, like the Plaid Cymru MP who tried in 2004 to impeach Tony Blair for his actions on Iraq.
There are other more exotic devices that could theoretically be used against a lying MP, such a Bill of Attainder. Here, Parliament can effectively find someone guilty of high crimes and suspend their civil rights in order to imprison them, confiscate property or even execute them. Such things are pretty much unthinkable in modern Britain and we haven’t used them since 1820, although Churchill considered reintroducing them during the Second World War (he was dissuaded by a reminder that even the USSR still preferred trials). More realistically, MPs can move to have a fellow Member suspended from the House of Commons if they have been proved to have lied to the House. You do, however, run up against the protections of Parliamentary privilege.
There are certain new procedures enabling voters to recall their MPs and hold another vote. These, however, have been cleverly constructed so that anyone who’d find themselves subject would probably have been expelled from the House already. They’d have been charged with serious offences and found guilty.
If you’re angry that your MP lied, but you still support their party on other issues, are you really going to vote against them?
But the stock answer is, you can always vote them out. General Elections are fought on a basket of issues, though. The whole political establishment is tearing itself to pieces over the EU right now, for instance, but in the 2015 General Election, Europe was as usual a second-division issue. So it’s hard to punish an official electorally for a single offence, even lying, when the vote is about so many other things too: policy, party, class and so on. If you’re angry that your MP lied about Brexit, but you still support their party on other issues, are you really going to vote against them?
The real problem is that a politician telling lies is not actually a matter for the law, any more than a child telling their teacher that they can’t do PE because they’ve got a temperature coming on. A lie is fiendishly hard to prove. Indeed it could be said that gently misleading the public for the greater good is one of the numerous dark arts of the effective politician. When Mrs May tells us “Brexit means Brexit”, there’s no doubt that there’s an intent to deceive there – but is it to play for time, in the national interest?
It could be said that gently misleading the public for the greater good is one of the numerous dark arts of the effective politician.
A party can punish an MP by withdrawing the whip, so that they are no longer a member of their party either temporarily or permanently. The latter almost inevitably means loss of their seat at the next election. But this is open to all kinds of abuse, as we’re seeing with Labour activists calling for the right to deselect MPs. That tends to be political rather than a matter of punishing misdeeds and it opens up the central question of MPs’ legitimacy. In our system they are representatives who act according to their conscience, not delegates who do what their constituents and party activists tell them to do.
There are many cases of MPs who’ve been punished for notorious misdeeds but surprisingly few are for lying. John Stonehouse was a fraudster; many MPs were prosecuted and some imprisoned during the expenses scandal; John Profumo the Secretary of State for War had been consorting with call girls and was considered a security risk. Anthony Eden was accused of lying to the House and destroying evidence over the Suez disaster, but his punishment was to resign in disgrace. He was never prosecuted or formally punished. British politics just isn’t like that.
So I’m afraid that if your MP tells lies in public, you have to put a lot of effort into campaigning to have them thrown out at the next election. And that’s difficult, because even a liar can be a very effective campaigner – and sometimes even a very good constituency MP.