Boris Johnson’s spokesperson refused to set the record straight after he made a false statement at PMQs - here’s what happened

Thursday, 11th March 2021, 11:11 am
Updated Thursday, 11th March 2021, 11:12 am
Boris Johnson’s spokesperson refused to set the record straight after he made a false statement at PMQs - here’s what happened (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson’s spokesperson refused to set the record straight after he made a false statement at PMQs - here’s what happened (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Prime Minister has been criticised after his spokesperson refused to apologise or issue a clarification when Mr Johnson falsely claimed that opposition MPs had voted against a pay rise for NHS staff last year.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) yesterday, Mr Johnson incorrectly stated that the Labour Party had voted against a motion to give NHS staff a 2.1 per cent pay rise.

During a press briefing after PMQs, the PM’s press secretary refused on 20 occasions to offer an apology or clarification from the Prime Minister, despite this being the convention when a mistake is made in the Commons.

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What was the debate over?

The initial argument related to current government plans to offer NHS staff a one per cent pay rise, which Labour has described as being not enough.

While the Speaker of the House did agree to a clarification for the official record, it would be conventional for the person who made the mistake to issue a clarification of their own, or acknowledge their mistake.

When Labour leader Keir Starmer mistakenly claimed that he had never supported joining the European Medicines Agency in another PMQs spat last month, the Labour leader issued an apology and clarification later that day.

What was said?

HuffPost has published a transcript, included below, of the conversation between the chairman of the Westminster journalists’ press lobby, Macer Hall, and the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, Allegra Stratton.

Macer Hall: This is specifically about comments he made about the way the Labour Party voted on one Bill. The Bill went through “on the nod”. They didn’t vote against it. Will the prime minister apologise and correct the record on this?

Allegra Stratton: The Speaker addressed it in the House immediately after the shadow health secretary raised it, and the Speaker said that it was a point of clarification, and regarded it as having been dealt with.

Macer Hall: Shouldn’t the prime minister clarify? It was not really up to the shadow health secretary to clarify the mistake. Shouldn’t he be clarifying it?

Allegra Stratton: I think the Speaker addressed it, so it’s not about the shadow health secretary. The Speaker addressed it, he accepted it was a point of clarification, and he regarded it as having been addressed.

Macer Hall: So he does accept that he was wrong in this case, and he did say the wrong thing to the House?

Allegra Stratton: It was Speaker regarding a point of clarification as having been made. And that’s appropriate.

Macer Hall: This is the third occasion in several weeks that the prime minister has got points of fact wrong in the House of Commons. Does he have a problem with getting the facts right?

Allegra Stratton: No, he doesn’t. The Speaker addressed this as a point of clarification. And it’s been dealt with today.

Macer Hall: Did you just forget how Labour voted on this occasion, or was he deliberately trying to make a political point and was incorrect?

Allegra Stratton: The Speaker regards a point of clarification as having been made. And it’s therefore being dealt with today.

Macer Hall: But don’t MPs have a responsibility to clarify their own mistakes? It’s not something that should be left to the speaker.

Allegra Stratton: The key thing is that this was dealt with swiftly and the Speaker, who has enormous respect and authority in parliament, regards it as a point of clarification, and it’s now been dealt with.

Macer Hall: Does the prime minister think it’s the Speaker’s job to correct the prime minister’s mistakes, and not the prime minister’s job to do that?

Allegra Stratton: It’s not a conversation I’ve been able to have with him because he was in the chamber, and we were coming over here. But the Speaker, who has enormous authority, and in the House of Commons, regarded the point of clarification is having been made and having been dealt with, and he was clear on that.

Macer Hall: But isn’t this part of a pattern of behaviour? Doesn’t the prime minister have a slightly casual relationship with the truth?

Allegra Stratton: On the specifics of today, the Speaker addressed it, and it was dealt with extremely swiftly. I think the shadow health secretary was on his feet to make Labour’s point within seconds of PMQs wrapping up.

Macer Hall: The prime minister walked out and didn’t listen to it, did he?

Allegra Stratton: Prime minister’s questions was finished and the prime minister left the chamber. There’s nothing unusual in that. The Speaker has already addressed this issue, said it was a point of clarification, and that the matter has been dealt with.

Macer Hall: So, will the prime minister correct the record?

Allegra Stratton: On the record is the Speaker saying that it’s a point of clarification and it’s been dealt with.

Macer Hall: Does Number 10 accept that the prime minister was wrong on this issue, yes or no? Was he incorrect?

Allegra Stratton: The Speaker has dealt with this and he said it was a point of clarification and it’s now been dealt with.

Macer Hall: I mean if it’s just an honest mistake or he was badly briefed, why doesn’t he just say that and apologise?

Allegra Stratton: The key thing here is that an authority in parliament, the Speaker of the House of Commons has dealt with this issue. It’s not an issue that is open. It is a point of clarification and it’s now being dealt with.

Macer Hall: That’s not the same thing as correcting the record. Shouldn’t the prime minister actually correct the record, which is a formal procedure that can be done?

Allegra Stratton: I know the record will show the Speaker has listened to what the shadow health secretary had to say and regards it as a point of clarification that has now been dealt with.

Macer Hall: In just leaving it to the Speaker, isn’t the point that the prime minister himself doesn’t seem to be concerned about the truth of these matters.

Allegra Stratton: The prime minister is concerned about the truth of these matters. He comes to prime minister’s questions, indeed comes to the chamber, very frequently, and answers a great number of questions from all sides of the House.

Macer Hall: Does he think it’s right to be factually accurate and honest, when talking to MPs? Does he feel it’s right to correct the record when mistakes are made?

Allegra Stratton: The thing is, Macer, the Speaker has addressed this issue and accepted a point of clarification. That is now the record. The issue has been dealt with. Some of these questions would be difficult if the speaker had not addressed it and the House had not had it addressed, but it has been addressed as a point of clarification.

Macer Hall: There is a lot of interest in this. Does the prime minister agree with the ministerial code when it says it’s of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. It’s not up to the speaker. It’s up to the minister to do it. Does he agree with that in the ministerial code?

Allegra Stratton: He absolutely agrees with that in the ministerial code. In this instance, the system worked. Jonathan Ashworth made his point and the speaker responded immediately to say a point of clarification had been made, and the matter was dealt with. It’s an hour since this happened.

Macer Hall: The prime minister wasn’t even there to witness the clarification. Why doesn’t the prime minister just hold his hands up and say he got it wrong and he wants to record to be corrected?

Allegra Stratton: The prime minister’s press secretary, I am here, saying to all of you on a number of occasions that we saw the Speaker get to his feet and and and that a point of clarification had been made, and the matter has been dealt with.

Mr Hall returned to the topic later in the discussion.

Macer Hall: In the 2019 live TV debate in the election, the audience laughed out loud when the prime minister said the truth matters during the debate. Does he have a problem with the way the public regards his attitude to the truth?

Allegra Stratton: He has no problem in that at all. You saw in the last general election that he was returned to the parliament having won the general election, with a huge majority, which reflects the widespread admiration and affection with which he’s held by the British people.

Macer Hall: Last month when Keir Starmer inadvertently misled the House on a point of fact he apologised and corrected the record within an hour. Why is the one rule for that is the Opposition, but not for the prime minister?

Allegra Stratton: But within minutes in this instance this issue was raised in the proper place, which is the House of Commons chamber. The Speaker listened to the shadow health secretary and accepted a point of clarification. And he regarded the matter as having been dealt with.

Macer Hall: But he does accept that what he said about a Labour MPs voting against the bill was incorrect?

Allegra Stratton: The matter was dealt with incredibly swiftly. The shadow health secretary was on his feet after PMQs wound up, and the issue was dealt with immediately by the House of Commons Speaker, who regarded a point of clarification as having been made, and the matter has been dealt with.