Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lies, damned lies, and unparliamentary language

Gordon Brown said at prime minister’s questions yesterday that David Cameron was being “misleading”. Cue theatrical uproar from the Tory benches and demands that Brown withdraw the remark.

The Speaker, Michael Martin, urged more “temperate language”, but ruled that the word wasn’t “unparliamentary”.

Tory MPs were dissatisfied, and continued to aver that “mislead” was out of order, but they have short memories. Those of us with nothing in the way of social lives will recall a session of PMQs in 1994, when Margaret Beckett was acting Labour leader. She riled John Major on some topic or other sufficiently for him to say that she had “lied”.

Cue theatrical uproar from the Labour benches and demands that he withdraw the remark.

The then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, did instruct Major to withdraw it. He didn’t do so as such, but instead repeated his statement, substituting “misled” for “lied”. This satisfied the Speaker (although not Labour MPs), apparently because “mislead” doesn’t imply the same deliberate intent to deceive as does “lie”.

Because of its parliamentary permissibility, though, “mislead” has in this context come to take on very strong connotations of deliberate deceit.

I’m glad we pay these people so much.

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