Amid the ‘tributes’ showered on the late Sir Edward Heath earlier this week, there was, inevitably for a man who upset so many people, the occasional reference to his most catastrophic service to his country: his decision to take us into what is now called the European Union. It was said, fairly, that Heath was not straight with the British people about this. The 1970 Conservative manifesto promised to negotiate about our possible entry; but entry took place without any further reference to the people. In a similarly secret way he effectively abolished our fishing industry and made a commitment — happily unfulfilled — to take us into a single European currency. Yet, as was said in many of the obituaries, Heath was a man of integrity. He had a set of principles and always lived by them — and spoke up for them when they were under attack. For all his high-handedness, it is hard to prove Heath ever actually lied in his public life. He was just, to quote his private secretary Lord Armstrong in another context, ‘economical with the truth’. This modus operandi marked out the Grocer as the missing link between the old-school politics of Churchill’s generation, where all was above board, and the brothel politics of Tony Blair’s Britain, where no store is set by the truth at all.
Should you consider this an exaggeration, note the exchange in the High Court last week between the Rt Hon. Stephen Byers MP, one of Mr Blair’s leading acolytes, and Mr Keith Rowley QC, who represents Railtrack’s shareholders. Mr Byers admitted that when, as transport secretary, he told a Commons select committee that he was ‘not aware’ of discussions over a change to the status of Railtrack before 25 July 2001, it was ‘not an accurate statement’. Mr Rowley then asked Mr Byers if he had deliberately made an inaccurate statement — that is, ‘lied’. Mr Byers said that ‘it was such a long time ago, I cannot remember, but it is not a truthful statement and I apologise for that. I cannot remember the motives behind it.’ I think, members of the jury, that the only conclusion one can draw is that the Rt Hon. Stephen Byers MP lied so frequently (and, for all any of us knows, still does) in his public duties that it became second nature to him; so much so that he now can’t even remember why he does it.
It is a fact increasingly little known, but many MPs are remarkably honest in their public duties. When they speak in the Commons they speak the truth. They do not fiddle their expenses or accept compromising freebies. They do not use their position as MPs to make oodles of dosh while neglecting their constituents. They are, in short, beyond reproach as public servants. However, they and we should be in no doubt about the damage done to the reputation of every Member of Parliament, and to Parliament itself, by this admission of Mr Byers. After all, he is not just an MP. He is a former secretary of state and he remains a Privy Counsellor. And the British public will say that if such a man can carry on in his public position while having admitted to lying deliberately to fellow MPs, what depths must our public life actually have sunk to?
It would, I suspect, also be unduly charitable to give the Rt Hon. Stephen Byers MP any credit for having owned up now. Tragically, we were not privy to the advice from his own counsel. I presume it went something like this. ‘Look, Steve, you can lie to the High Court of Parliament and they have to lump it, and you can carry on drawing your salary and being Rt Hon. But if you repeat that lie to the High Court of Justice and you are found out, then it’s chokey for you.’ Mr Byers now faces a possible reference to the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, and possible disciplinary action. We shall have to wait and see what the Labour majority does to him, if it does anything much at all.
Let me make this unfashionable assertion: that it is utterly shocking for a Privy Counsellor and a Member of Parliament to admit to having deliberately lied to his fellow MPs in a Commons committee. It wrecks the concept of trust on which our democracy is built. The gravity of the offence requires exemplary punishment, to protect the credibility of Parliament and the Privy Council. As with others who have lied to the Commons, Mr Byers should resign his seat immediately. He may be a mate of the Prime Minister’s, though if I were Mr Blair I’d play that one down. He may be unemployable outside politics, but that’s just tough. Mr Byers’s constituents have a right to be represented by an honest man. The public have a right to be governed by ministers who are truthful when held to account. Ministers have a duty to uphold the integrity of office. By far his most serious offence is that, as a Privy Counsellor, Mr Byers has besmirched an august body whose absolute integrity has long been explicit. Infinitely better men than he have been dismissed from the Privy Council for lying to Parliament. Mr Byers has not yet seen any cause to resign from the Privy Council. If Mr Blair does not therefore advise the Queen to remove him, he will not merely be endorsing dishonesty near the pinnacle of our public life, he will be making a mockery of all that the Privy Council and its oath stand for.
However, it is highly unlikely that Mr Blair, who has tolerated conspicuous liars in his administration and in his private office before now, will advise the Sovereign to dismiss Mr Byers from her Council. Nor, we must assume, will the chief whip tell Mr Byers he must leave Parliament — for every time he now stands up to speak, those who hear him will have to wonder whether he is about to lie again. Yet not too long ago, when Ted Heath was chief whip or prime minister, severe consequences would have inevitably followed from an act so improper as Mr Byers’s, and everyone (including the culprit) would have understood why. As usual when something shameful happens connected with his administration, Mr Blair will expect the media and the public to be too bored to make an undue fuss. Yet this is no small matter. It is about violating the very basis of the relationship Privy Counsellors have with the Constitution, and that MPs have with the public and each other. It is fundamental to how we are governed. Ted Heath, whom Mr Blair so warmly praised this week, would have known he could never tolerate a Byers. And nor, if he has a proper sense of his duty, should Mr Blair.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.