UK Politics

The political art of the denial

Alan Johnson MP Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Alan Johnson won't "stand" as leader. But could he be crowned leader?

"I have never stood for the leadership of my party and regardless of the circumstances I never will," says the Labour MP Alan Johnson.

His words seem categorical. Mr Johnson says he would never "stand as leader" - but could he still become leader after an unopposed "coronation"?

It may be surprising that such questions are asked around Westminster when the denial seems as final as it could be to the casual listener.

But the long history of the "non-denial denial" - the term coined by the late Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, during the Watergate scandal - means that every word spoken in such cases is pored over to see if any wiggle room is left, as these high profile cases from the archives demonstrate:

Michael Howard and the Tory leadership

Image caption "I will never stand again for the leadership of the Conservative Party," said Michael Howard in 2002

In 2002, the then shadow chancellor Michael Howard gave an interview to the BBC .

"I have no interest or desire in becoming leader of the Conservative Party, because we have an excellent leader in Iain Duncan Smith, whom I wholeheartedly support," he said.

"I will never stand again for the leadership of the Conservative Party," he added.

A year later, he was crowned leader unopposed after Iain Duncan Smith was ousted. The argument was that Mr Howard had technically not gone back on his word; he was asked to be leader rather than "standing" as leader.

Obviously it would be an undeniable failure on our part not to include a reference here to Mr Howard's famous grilling by BBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman in 1997.

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Media captionMichael Howard returned to Newsnight for Jeremy Paxman's final show, 17 years after their infamous 1997 interview

Another Michael and the Tory leadership

Image copyright PA
Image caption Giving ambiguous answers is a time-honoured practice, as shown by Michael Heseltine in 1990

"I can foresee no circumstances under which a challenge would take place," said Michael Heseltine in 1990, when asked about his ambitions to succeed an increasingly unpopular Margaret Thatcher.

Within two months, the circumstances he was previously unable to foresee had all of a sudden presented themselves.

Like many heirs apparent, however, he never actually won the prize so long forecast to come his way.

Tony Blair and tuition fees

Image copyright PA
Image caption Tony Blair introduced university tuition fees in 1998 despite having had "no plans" to do so a year earlier

In 1997, just before the general election, Tony Blair was asked whether Labour would introduce tuition fees for higher education.

His answer was: "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education." When Mr Blair's government went on to introduce tuition fees in 1998, critics claimed the wording was deliberately misleading.

Labour went on to promise: "We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them."

Ministers claimed the fee increase that followed was "variable" not "top-up".

Bill Clinton and "that woman"

Image copyright AP
Image caption The impeachment case against US President Bill Clinton hinged on the definition of 'sexual relations'

In 1998, Bill Clinton became only the second US President to be impeached, over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

The case hinged on his famous statement "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

As prosecutors attempted to prove that oral sex did constitute sexual relations, lurid details emerged of the president's behaviour.

During his grand jury testimony, Clinton defended his statement that "there's nothing going on between us" on the basis that he had no relationship with Ms Lewinsky at the time he was questioned.

"It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he said. "If 'is' means 'is and never has been', that's one thing. If it means 'there is none', that was a completely true statement."

David Miliband: "Not a candidate"

Image copyright PA
Image caption David Miliband's choice of words seemed evasive, but many would sympathise with his predicament

When Tony Blair announced his resignation in 2007, David Miliband was thought to be considering a bid to succeed him.

His choice of phrase - "I am not a candidate" - was seen as sufficiently ambiguous to allow him to keep his options open.

But in his case, his wording was seen as so open that his failure to mount a challenge led to his being portrayed by some as indecisive. He did eventually run for the leadership, but not until after Gordon Brown's resignation in 2010, when he lost out narrowly to his younger brother Ed.

Boris Johnson and the reincarnated olive

Image caption Boris Johnson - unlikely to be decapitated by a frisbee or reincarnated as an olive but could he be PM?

One politician in particular has mastered the art of the humorously evasive answer to a tricky question.

Pressed over his ambitions, Boris Johnson has, over the years, declared himself more likely to be "decapitated by a frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a fridge or reincarnated as an olive" than to become prime minister.

When pushed further by the BBC documentary maker Michael Cockerell, his answer was only slightly clearer. He would like to "have a crack" at it, he said, "if the ball came loose from the back of a scrum".

He's standing for Parliament in 2015, and his words are taken as meaning he will be a contender when the vacancy as Conservative leader arrives.