Some time ago, 1989 to be exact, US President Bill Clinton was impeached. His crime was not that he had slept with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky; that was between him and his wife, Hillary. No, his crime was lying under oath.
If, when asked if he had slept with the intern, he had said, Yes, it was great, next question please, all would have been forgotten in a week or so. He may have found himself in the divorce courts but would have not given the United States House of Representatives anything to do.
Today, we see British prime minister, Boris Johnson, tying himself in knots after a party with a few friends.
He has rejected claims that he lied to Parliament. He has said that “nobody told me that what we were doing was against the rules.” Not a very convincing claim for the head of the government that made the rules. If he really did not know the rules, this is much more worrying than his breaking them. We expect our ministers, prime or otherwise, to know what they are doing.
Mr. Johnson has apologized to both the Queen and the country -“When I went out into that garden, I thought I was attending a work event.”
But not knowing the rules could be an important precedent. Next time I am stopped by the police, driving at 120 kph down a side-street, I will say, sorry, officer, I did not know there was a speed limit.
I might heave a rock at a jeweler’s shop window. If a policeman should turn up, I will say sorry, officer, I did not know that the glass was so breakable.
And, as I walk out of a restaurant, after a hearty meal with a bottle of really good Israeli wine, without paying the bill, I can exclaim – but nobody told me that you charge for these meals.
When I was young, we were told that we should learn as much as possible, you can never know too much. It seems that, for prime ministers, the less you know you the better you are equipped to serve the nation.