There are fresh calls to clean up politics with stronger rules around lying after senior Tories made false statements around meat taxes and 15-minute cities at their annual party conference.
Green MP Caroline Lucas told Sky News a “dishonesty epidemic is infecting the Tory party” as she called on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to acquaint himself with the Nolan Principles of public life – which include that holders of public office tell the truth.
These are not legally binding, but some MPs and academics believe they should be amid a collapse in public trust in UK politicians.
The debate has been reignited after a fractious Conservative Party Conference which, aside from the HS2 fiasco, has been dominated by accusations of MPs lying and peddling conspiracy theories.
Critics point to Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho claiming in a speech that Labour is “relaxed about taxing meat” – something which is not Labour Party policy.
Meanwhile Transport Secretary Mark Harper, in an attack on 15-minute cities, said we should not tolerate “the idea that local councils decide how often you go to the shops” – echoing a conspiracy theory about the planning concept that the government has previously debunked.
The independent charity Full Fact also raised concern about Chancellor Jeremy Hunt describing inflation as a tax, saying that is “clearly not technically true”.
Science Secretary Michelle Donelan has also been accused of “making things up” after pledging to “kick woke ideology out of science” while Susan Hall, the Tory mayoral candidate for London, faced criticism for suggesting the Jewish community is scared of Sadiq Khan – a claim Jewish groups have strongly disputed.
It follows a speech Mr Sunak gave on net zero last month in which he claimed to have “scrapped” measures which were never government policy, such as a tax on flying and households being required to own seven bins.
Ms Lucas told Sky News: “A dishonesty epidemic is infecting the Tory party. Our political leaders’ socially-distanced relationship with the truth clearly didn’t end with Johnson’s ousting from office – over the past few weeks we’ve seen an escalation of fabrications, falsehoods and downright lies from Rishi Sunak’s government.
“If the prime minister isn’t acquainted with the seven Nolan Principles of public life – including that holders of public office should be truthful – then he shouldn’t be in public life at all.”
Ms Lucas is one of several MPs that supports a bill that would make it a criminal offence for politicians to deliberately lie. Polling by the cross-party group Compassion in Politics, which has drafted the legislation, shows three quarters of the public support the measure.
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Jennifer Nadel, co-director of Compassion in Politics said: “The last few days in Manchester really have put the con in conference.
“Rather than focusing on the major issues of the day – falling living standards, climate change, and crumbling schools – or giving a straight answer on the future of HS2, many Conservative MPs have tried to deflect attention by spreading lies and misinformation. It’s doing a huge disservice to the public and to the members of their own party who are tainted by association.”
‘No rules to prevent lying’
Ms Nadel said that “lying persists because we have no rules to prevent it” and “this has to change”.
She said their bill, if adopted, would bring politics into line with many other professions “which prohibit lying and deception”.
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, who is the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Compassionate Politics, has also proposed a bill that would put the Ministerial Code on a statutory footing, making lying to the House of Commons a sackable offence.
She told Sky News: “Honesty and integrity should be the cornerstones of our politics but sadly they have been lacking at this week’s Conservative Party Conference.
“Genuine political disagreements are fair game but it is disappointing that the Tories are so devoid of ideas that they have resorted to making things up.”
Tory conference claims fact-checked
In her speech at the conference on Monday, Ms Coutinho said: “It’s no wonder that Labour seem so relaxed about taxing meat, Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t eat it, and Ed Miliband is clearly scarred by his encounter with a bacon sandwich.”
However, taxing meat is not Labour policy and the idea was rejected by Mr Miliband in 2021.
Ms Coutinho was repeatedly pressed about her comments on the Politics Hub With Sophy Ridge but was unable to provide any specific evidence or expand upon it, calling it a “light-hearted moment” then going onto talk about the ULEZ charge.
Commenting on a clip of the exchange on X, former MEP and Conservative politician Charles Tannock said: “Make the Nolan principles statutory and restore public shame on those Ministers who deliberately deceive and lie to the public, otherwise the future and integrity of our precious democracy is in jeopardy.”
The Tories have also been called out over Mr Harper’s 15-minute city comments – including by Carlos Moreno, the academic who invented the concept.
The idea behind them is that everyone in cities should be a 15 minute walk or cycle away from basic amenities, but on Monday Mr Harper claimed they are being “misused” to restrict when people can go the shops and ration who uses roads.
However as pointed out by the charity Full Fact, there is no evidence that councils are attempting to place restrictions on how often residents can go to the shops, or their ability to choose which services they can access – something energy minister Andrew Bowie also suggested when asked about Mr Harper’s comments on BBC Radio Four.
The charity have rebuffed other claims made this week, including Mr Sunak saying in his speech on Wednesday that Labour’s immigration plan would lead to 100,000 asylum-seekers coming to the UK, which they said was an unreliable Conservative Party estimate.
Steve Nowottny, editor at Full Fact, said this year has seen a “worrying trend” emerge across the political divide, with politicians making policies without putting them into context or supporting them with evidence.
“Trust in politics has been consistently low, and it is deeply disappointing when politicians of any party do not hold themselves to the highest possible standards of accuracy and fairness, as voters rightly expect them to ahead of the next general election,” he said.
Tories ‘party of fact’ insists minister
Last night, Science Secretary Ms Donelan insisted the Conservatives are “the party of fact” when a compilation of outlandish statements made by her colleagues was put to her on BBC Newsnight.
Presenter Victoria Derbyshire said: “There was never a proposal to use seven bins. We can’t find any council that wants to decide how often people can go to shops and Labour have never proposed taxing meat. They are untruths, they are fiction, they are completely and utterly made up and it’s really disrespectful to voters.”
But Ms Donelan said: “I genuinely believe we are the party of facts and evidence.”