This is the text of an article commissioned by the Church Times and published last Thursday. I have been asked why I don’t target Jeremy Corbyn – the simple answer is that he is not the Prime Minister. Secondly, the article is not primarily about Boris Johnson, but about the future of our political discourse and the consequences of accepting that unethical language is to be normalised. It is a question rather than a statement.

The last couple of weeks have been extraordinary. A new Prime Minister, elected only by a miniscule minority of the electorate, loses his first vote in the House of Commons, threatens an election he has no power to call (without the assent of two thirds of the House), removes the party whip from 21 MPs. Democracy at work? Genius strategic thinking? Or a dog’s breakfast of political vindictiveness at a time of national crisis?

What we know is this: the Prime Minister is determined to come over as a strong leader. He talks tough, although seems not to realise that the people he speaks toughly about can all hear him. In the EU and further afield the astonishment no longer has anything to do with the referendum decision to leave the EU, but everything to do with the chaotic and destructive incompetence of the process since 2016. I think ‘incredulity’ is the word to describe competent onlookers who once respected the Mother of Parliaments.

We can probably predict with confidence that a general election will be held before too long. 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. We have a parliamentary (representative) system that has been compromised by a popular vote that our parliamentary representatives are now to negotiate – not as delegates or puppets, but people elected to use their judgement on our behalf about the best interests of the country and all its people.

However, the real questions facing the country go beyond and behind the apparent challenges. One way or another Parliament will resolve its current crisis. If it goes well, this will happen via parliamentary processes and decision-making. It might not go well. But, the questions that will persist well beyond the immediate are fundamental to who we think we are as a country and to who we want to become.

I’m afraid it’s about language again. And about the relationship between truth and trust, for which language is essential.

When the PM announced the proroguing of Parliament he clearly had the power to do so according to the constitution. Why? Because the uncodified constitution depends on conventions and respect for the rules of behaviour, and these conventions can be ignored or set aside. However, at what cost? Once the PM did this (having lied repeatedly about not doing it), the cat was out of the bag. If his behaviour is acceptable, what happens when a far left PM decides “in order to get the job done” to suspend Parliament at will? The constitution is only as strong as the respect shown it by all parties; it must be sustainable in all circumstances, regardless of who holds the keys to Number 10.

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. Leaving the red bus to one side (and his colleagues’ claims about “the easiest deal in history”), the latest was the deliberate confusing of “proroguing” with “recess”. Apparently, the prorogation of Parliament will add only a few days to recess, so what’s the fuss about? Well, the fuss is because 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.

So, to echo Pontius Pilate’s question (which Jesus left him to answer for himself), what is truth? 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?

If the language of “getting Brexit done” is accepted, then what currency did the old promises have whereby this is “the easy bit”? Brexit will not be “done” by leaving the EU on any date. The easy bot 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?

Amid the parliamentary game-playing, does it matter that a defecting MP accuses the PM of “bullying, lies and manipulation”? What place do we give to ethics, honesty and integrity? Or doesn’t it matter?

None of this is new. These questions have been raised again and again during the last four years, but they have largely been ignored. They will demand a response at some point.

Let’s look at it this way: 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.

Essentially, what we have seen in the current political tactics is a decision to enshrine utilitarianism: the ends justify the means. But, if we are to be consistent, we must allow that in the future the same ethic might apply and we will have little ground for objection. Is that acceptable morally or politically? If we think it is, then we must own up to the consequences for how democracy might run in the future when “getting the job done” is all it takes to justify playing fast and loose with the rules.

Allied to this is the fact that, as I articulated in the House of Lords a couple of years ago, lying has become normalised and our discourse corrupted. Maybe it is the loss of shame as a social check that lies at the root of this. There is an argument that once shame is removed and any social sanction discarded, we can lie with impunity … because as long as we achieve our end – obtaining and holding on to power – the lies we tell in order to get there simply don’t matter.

Or hypocrisy? How is trust in politics or in politicians to be recovered when five leading members of the government swear blind that they would not agree to the proroguing of Parliament and, within a month or two, (a) agree to it and (b) refuse to justify or explain that turnaround in public? It is possible that there is a strong and clear ethical justification for a change of mind; but, in public leadership there should be a right for the public to hear it. Otherwise, we are saying that commitments made in public that help shape the approval of an electorate can be discarded once inconvenient, and that’s OK. Is it?

Truth-telling lies at the heart of public trust in our institutions. And trust is a casualty of lying or misrepresentation (the point of the ninth commandment). Take the focus off the current spate of deliberate lying (proroguing is not the same as recess, and those justifying it as “adding just a few days to it” know they are lying) and it isn’t hard to see that the future of our politics will be shaped by what we agree is acceptable now.

These questions are not partisan. The answers to them will shape our political culture for decades to come. Once integrity has been diminished as an essential element of democratic discourse and behaviour, it won’t be long before we reap the fruit of our moral contempt.

It was encouraging to watch the news last night and see that the BBC has been (officially) readmitted to Zimbabwe after several years of (official) absence. I will be in Zimbabwe from Monday 3 – 10 August (i.e. next week) and will be interested to see how deep the apparent renewed optimism goes.

Welcome to ZimbabweWhen I was last there I got stitched up by the government-run media. I had taken a group of 20 people from the Croydon Episcopal Area of the Diocese of Southwark in 2007 and in our second week we were invited to a meeting with the since-retired Governor of the Midlands Province, Cephas Msipa. He was a nice man and was very warm and welcoming to us. I asked if he would mind if we took a few photographs and he said he had no problem with that – as we would have no problem with his people taking a few photos, too.

The ‘few photos’ turned out to be a television crew and a national newspaper journalist (among others). Taken by surprise by this, I tried to make sure that every time the camera was focused on us my arms were crossed, my eyes were down and my head was shaking – all to ensure that I couldn’t be edited in a way that showed me supporting or agreeing with the anti-British propaganda that we would undoubtedly be fed. At the end of a polite-but-frank, useful and substantial exchange of views the Governor brought proceedings to an end, apologising that we had strayed into politics and away from ‘welcome’. And that was when the fun started.

The national journalist (although I did not know at that point that this is who he was) attacked me with accusations of British neo-colonialism, etc – the usual stuff. I countered firmly, but politely. He then went on to accuse the British media of deliberately misrepresenting Zimbabwe for their own political ends and that really annoyed me. I suggested that banning the BBC and other western media organs from Zimbabwe did not help their cause, raised speculation about what they were trying to hide and betrayed great insecurity. However, I then added: “Anyone who deals with the media gets misrepresented or misquoted – even in the UK; but you can deal with it in a democracy by countering or complaining and getting it put right. Zimbabwe can’t ban the BBC and then complain when they get at second or third hand what they feel to be misrepresentation! You can’t have it both ways…” This was followed by  alonger informal conversation after the meeting finished.

The next morning the front page headline of the Herald proclaimed: ‘Clergyman condemns UK media lies’, reporting that I had led a group of 20 clergy [sic] to Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission [sic] and saw no evidence of problems – putting it all down to media lies by a politically motivated British media. I protested directly to the Governor (who had given me his mobile phone number – probably in anticipation of such an event) who got a TV report re-edited and then withdrawn and apologised to me for what he also recognised as deliberate fabrication and misrepresentation of both the meeting we had had and the comments I had made.

However, this didn’t stop the story getting repeated around the world. One amazingly brazen magazine in the UK, New African, even published what purported to be first-hand interview with me in which I reinforced what the Herald had published. I had never heard of New African, had not been approached by them and they refused to print my letter challenging the article – in fact, they never even responded.

I still get what can only be described as ‘hate mail’ on the basis of what I was reported to have said. I followed up this trip with an article in the Church Times (which I cannot now find), but it was also mentioned in an article in the Church Times while we were still out there in Zimbabwe. I understand that the journalist who wrote this later committed suicide, but I have no idea of the circumstances.

I will be back there next week and looking for signs of change. This beautiful country with its wonderful people deserves better than it has experienced during the last years. I hope to find genuine grounds for renewed optimism – but without restoration of the rule of law and a genuinely free media, such optimism will be mere wishful thinking.