Tuesday, May 10, 2022


 I've been thinking about absolution - in the context of the UK government.

Historically, parliamentarians as a matter of honour have always faced consequences when they did anything wrong. This included what today feels almost trivial - government ministers in particular are bound by the Ministerial Code, and if a minister was caught lying to parliament, they would resign. The reason that MPs are not allowed to describe other MPs as "liars" was because in previous eras, such a slight on someone's honour would have led to a duel. When I discussed this idea on Twitter, someone pointed out that the sets of front benches were two swords-lengths and a foot apart, as presumably at some stage in parliamentary history, this might have been a real problem.

The point I'm making is: if you were caught doing something wrong, you stood down. You faced punishment for what you had done.

Very early in the Johnson era, it became apparent that this was not how his government would work. The minister James Cleverley was reported to have caused an accident speeding and using a mobile phone in a car within a month of Johnson taking office. The Prime Minister makes the ultimate decision about how to handle this, and he decided nothing should happen. The same pattern has followed with further misdemeanours by ministers throughout his premiership - Priti Patel shown to have bullied staff; unlawful PPE contracts; and then above all, Johnson's own misbehaviour. Johnson, as PM, decides how to apply the Ministerial Code. The UK with no written constitution, and a system based on honour, has no means of dealing with a PM who refuses to behave in an honourable way.

A consequence of all this, however, is a gradually building mountain of what we might describe as unabsolved sin, or debt. Government ministers who have misbehaved have not faced the consequences of that misbehaviour. Had they done so - had Cleverley or Patel resigned - they would have paid the price for what they had done wrong. But instead, they are now "owned" by it. They are bound to Johnson - because their continuation in their role was dependent upon his indulgence.

There are stories that the whips (who organise political party interests in parliament) have lists of material that they are able to hold over recalcitrant MPs, so that they can keep them in line. The principle is the same - the consequences of things that have not been absolved bind MPs to the whips.

There's a connection here with Christianity. A Christian is someone who recognises that they have a debt that they can't pay, which hangs over them. The gospel says that, rather than God just ignoring that debt or pretending it doesn't exist (like Johnson), he agrees that it's real, but Jesus pays it on behalf of the Christian. That's how sins are absolved in Christianity.

Ministers who do things wrong should resign. The price for that wrongdoing is then paid. If at some stage in the future, the PM decides that they should be brought back into government, that's within his or her discretion. But the consequence of what they did wrong will have been dealt with. Note that Johnson was a beneficiary of this - twice! It was reasonable for him to be brought back, if hardly wise given a track record of dishonesty. But many of his ministers now have unabsolved misdemeanours which bind them to him. It's hard to see how it will be possible for them to come back after the Johnson era.