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Stop lying and bullying, Bishop of Leeds tells PM

05 September 2019

Is the Government’s behaviour acceptable, Bishop Baines asks


The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, leaves Downing Street on Wednesday

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, leaves Downing Street on Wednesday

THE Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has spoken of a crisis of “truth and trust” in UK politics caused in part by a Prime Minister who has “repeatedly lied, and misrepresented” Brexit to the nation.

Writing in the Church Times, Bishop Baines says that Mr Johnson had “lied repeatedly” about the motivation behind his decision to prorogue Parliament days after MPs returned from summer recess, until two weeks before the Brexit deadline (News, 30 August).

The move caused a party rebellion that led to an emergency debate on Tuesday evening, after which Mr Johnson lost control of the House of Commons agenda, leading the way for MPs to stop a no-deal Brexit next month. A bill to delay Brexit cleared the Commons on Wednesday night and was expected to pass through the House of Lords on Friday.

Bishop Baines explains in his article: “I used the word ‘lied’ — a strong accusation. But the question about the PM is how anything he says can be trusted when he has lied and misrepresented so much. . . The latest was the deliberate confusing of ‘proroguing’ with ‘recess’.

“Apparently, the prorogation of Parliament will add only a few days to recess. . . In recess, all the work of Parliament continues; after prorogation it ceases completely. They are not the same, and there is a democratic deficit in deliberately talking as if they are.”

Language had been abused time and again to mislead, he said. “If the language of ‘getting Brexit done’ is accepted, then what currency did the old promises have whereby this was ‘the easy bit’? Brexit will not be ‘done’ by leaving the EU on any date. The easy bit will be over, but then the decades-long hard slog of re-relating will begin — and how well is that likely to go when we have demonstrated that we can’t be trusted?”

Before the votes this week, the PM had pledged to leave on 31 October with or without a deal. He had also been telling the Commons that the chances of a Brexit deal had risen.

Further, Bishop Baines said: “If we are close to getting a deal, why do those with whom we are supposedly negotiating apparently not recall the negotiations? Are we totally resistant to looking through the eyes of our neighbours at who we are?”

Speaking after the vote, Mr Johnson confirmed that he intended to table a motion for a snap General Election on 15 October. This motion was rejected by MPs on Wednesday night.

Bishop Baines still believes an election next month is likely. “The terms on which that election will be fought are likely to be — certainly from the Government’s perspective — ‘parliament versus the people’.

“And here we come to the heart of our problem: parliamentary sovereignty is not the same thing as national (or popular) sovereignty. If the referendum truly was about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, then that aspiration went out of the window a long time ago. The two systems have clashed, and we now have the impasse.”

Mr Johnson lost his working majority on Tuesday afternoon, when a Conservative MP, Phillip Lee, defected to the Liberal Democrat Party. Mr Johnson has since removed the whip from 21 rebelling Conservative MPs who put forward legislation for the emergency debate.

Bishop Baines asked: “Amid the parliamentary game-playing, does it matter that a defecting MP accuses the PM of ‘bullying, lies, and manipulation’? . . . If the country finds it pragmatically acceptable that lying, manipulation, and misrepresentation are acceptable in public life and political discourse, then we will need to look at the consequences of this.”

PAPhillip Lee (standing, centre right) crosses the floor of the House of Commons to join the Liberal Democrats during a statement by Boris Johnson on Tuesday

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, also expressed deep concern about the rhetoric of UK politics, on Wednesday. Referring to words used by Mr Johnson in Parliament, Dr Innes said: “The visceral language and discourse on Brexit in the UK are on a perturbing and downward spiral: politicians cannot decry offensive social media while at the same time bandying around emotive terms in relation to the EU like ‘surrender, white flag, and collaborators’.”

He also expressed dismay at the move to prorogue Parliament: “It’s not prorogation that Parliament and people need right now: it is a rediscovered level of co-operation at Westminster coupled with intensified negotiation by a Government serious about a deal with the rest of the EU that can avoid an immensely damaging crash-out.

“I completely endorse what my colleagues in English dioceses wrote last week about no deal, and I have spoken out against it for some time now.”

On the possibility of a General Election, Dr Innes continued: “Let us be clear that no UK citizens should be hindered or obstructed from participating, or have their votes denied to them, as has clearly happened to so many, including in my diocese, ever since the 2016 referendum.”

He suggested that MPs look closely at the idea of the citizens’ forum that the Archbishop of Canterbury conditionally agreed to chair last week (News, 30 August). “It could potentially offer an expression of new hope and purposeful dialogue and exchange, given the current constitutional deadlock.”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who has been sitting in the Lords and in the Commons gallery this week, said that it had been a “momentous” time for UK politics.

Also writing in the comment pages of this paper, he said: “As I watched events unfold this week, it seems as if the Government wants to divide and rule. The very real danger is that we will divide and carry on dividing. To say this is not to oppose Brexit, but to say that we need to pursue a Brexit that works for everyone. That is not project fear. It is project hope. . . It is never too late to do things right.”

This includes protecting the poorest in society. “Part of the argument for Brexit was for Parliament to take back control. Undermining the famously unwritten British constitution and the conventions and protocols of Parliament in which it is enshrined, seems to me to threaten or even fatally wound the very control we wish to take back.

“And this is before we have considered the impact of a no-deal Brexit (which simply postpones all the negotiations we need to have) on the poorest in our society.”

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, also expressed concern for poor communities, should the UK leave the EU without a deal. “All assessments suggest that this will create a sharp shock to the British economy. Almost inevitably, it is the poorest people who suffer the most. . .

“Whether its medicines, or food, when things are in short supply it will hit the poorest in the most vulnerable jobs. Clearly, we will lose a lot of trade agreements by virtue of our EU membership, which will impact on those businesses that rely on exporting.”

Most people agreed that leaving with a deal was better than without, Dr Walker said, but he disagreed with the PM that the no-deal card was worth holding for leverage in Brussels. “The risk of damage to the country, disproportionate to the poorest, makes that a card you would never want to hold, let alone play.”

Parliament was right to hold the executive to account, but he was concerned that rebelling MPs were being “treated more harshly” for their actions — losing the party whip — which had not been the case with many MPs who had rebelled in the past and who were now in ministerial positions on the front bench.

“They were afforded a greater degree of right of conscience not to support the party line on things in the past. . . There seems a lack of even-handedness about that.”

He would feel “a lot more comfortable” if no-deal was off the table. “It may take longer, and it may be appropriate to have some further form of referendum or General Election to take things forward, but at least to know that we cannot accidentally crash out in the next eight weeks.”

He agreed that the Brexit debate had become visceral, not only in Parliament but in communities. “I am not sure if people are dealing with things in a rational way or with gut feeling. I am sure there are some people who want to get the darn thing over with, deal or no deal, ‘do or die’, as the Prime Minister said. I am not sure that die is a good option.”

The Church would be at the core of reconciliation, he said, “to be a focus to bring society together again, whether we leave with a deal, no deal, or call the whole thing off”.

Unlike government organisations, churches were perfectly placed to heal. “Churches have affectability because they are not part of the necessary bureaucracy of the state; so they can sometimes move more quickly to meet emerging areas of need than it is always possible for government organisations to do.”

In an interview with the Church Times on Tuesday, the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said that a no-deal Brexit was “utterly avoidable and would be undemocratic. . . Enforcing no deal is not giving the 52 per cent their way: it is forcing a contrived and arbitrary interpretation of the referendum result on the British people without asking them.”

He had “no personal animosity” towards Downing Street or its inhabitants, he insisted, but agreed with Bishop Baines that “truth is as important as grace” in holding Mr Johnson to account over his decision to prorogue Parliament.

“While I should show love, patience, and mercy towards our Prime Minister and his advisers, I am not commanded to overlook the growing dishonesty in Government, where the PM tells the public that we are closing in on a deal when he and his advisers know that this is categorically untrue. Being gracious towards others does not mean that we must shrug and meekly accept their dishonesty.

“If the Government thinks it can rouse the mob over the heads of those elected by the people, and to disregard the rule of law and operate in a ‘post-truth’ manner . . . then I would have great fears. However, I would want to counsel us not to panic. . .

“Don’t shrug, because all this stuff really does matter. But do not fear.”

On Monday, bishops in the Church in Wales, led by the Bishop of Bangor, the Rt Revd Andy John, wrote to Mr Johnson expressing “grave concern” about the suspension of Parliament and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

“Wales is vulnerable to particular dangers,” they write. “In accordance with our Christian principles, we are particularly concerned for protection of the poor and vulnerable. . . The prospect of shortages of food and medicines, especially if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal or transition period, is very real; latest estimates also indicate that the price of food and other essentials will go up.

“We ask the UK Government to keep its promise to Wales for ‘not a penny less’ in support than within EU.”

Read the full comment article from Bishop Baines

You can also read comment from Bishop Cottrell and our leader comment on the story

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