Oh, for a straight answer to a straight question. Evasiveness and politicians may go together like Downing Street and parties, but you can take it too far.

Politicians sometimes have good reasons for using ambiguous language – because an issue is complex and a one-word answer would not do it justice, or because they don’t want to make promises they can’t keep – but other times it’s about plain old avoidance, a strategy to cover up embarrassment, poor performance or wrongdoing.

Lack of candour often seemed to be the UK government’s main way of doing business under Boris Johnson. He deceived, told partial truths and claimed temporary amnesia over Partygate and the Chris Pincher affair, and his benighted ministers were expected to defend every last bit of it. Listening to them shrivel with embarrassment on breakfast radio was painful on a human level, but the only justice we got.

All politicians trim, but Johnson seemed willing to say anything to avoid admitting liability. Who could forget him claiming that “nobody warned me” holding a garden party at the height of lockdown was against the rules – in spite of having made the rules himself?

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US statesman Henry Kissinger once quipped that 90 per cent of politicians give the other 10 per cent a bad reputation. A bit harsh, that, but the linguistic dodges politicians use drive people quietly mad. This little compendium of exasperating interview wheezes helps explain why trust is such a difficult word in politics.

“We’ll be laying out in more detail what this means”

Translation: I haven’t a scooby what this will mean.

If Liz Truss has taught us one thing, it’s not to go to Lancashire where they hate fracking and talk about how you’re going to allow fracking.

If you do, BBC Lancashire’s Graham Liver will sniff you out and lie in wait for you. You’ll say fracking will only be done with local consent and he’ll point out that no one there wants it. “What does local consent look like?” he’ll ask.

And after a long painful pause, you’ll be reduced to this: “The energy secretary will be laying out in more detail what that looks like.”

“Sounds like you don’t know,” Liver will fire back, and everyone listening will agree with him. By teatime, half the adult population will have heard the clip and be wondering why Liver isn’t on the Today programme.

“We made a mistake”

Translation: You found us out

Let’s say… I don’t know… let’s say you wanted to get a veteran MP off being suspended from parliament for breaches of lobbying rules by changing the parliamentary standards process. Then let’s say you were forced into a climbdown.

Instead of “everyone saw straight through us and now we’re screwed”, you can call it “a mistake”. Nadhim Zahawi used the “mistake” defence in November 2021 about his fellow ministers’ actions over the Owen Paterson affair.

As motive is so hard to prove, you can present practically anything as an honest mistake, including rule-breaking (see B. Johnson, January 2022, on the Downing Street lockdown parties – “there were things we simply did not get right”).

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“I’m not going to pre-judge this inquiry”

Translation: They’ll buy that, won’t they?

“I’m not going to pre-judge the outcome of this inquiry” – Yes, that photo/testimony/video clip shows the minister is guilty but since he hasn’t resigned yet, I’m going to pretend that an inquiry could miraculously vindicate him.

Used ad nauseam by Tories over the lockdown party allegations facing Boris Johnson.

“I’m not going to speculate on hypothetical situations” – good for when the ethical thing to say is not the best thing for your relationship with the boss, as when broadcaster Kay Burley asked deputy PM Dominic Raab in January if Johnson should resign were he found guilty of lying to parliament.

“I want to look forwards, not backwards”

Translation: Don't remind me what I previously said, please

Ideal if you don’t want to be reminded of contradictory opinions you held in the past. Keir Starmer says it every time Brexit comes up.

“We’re prepared to make the hard choices”

Translation: we’re going to make your life worse and you’re going to hate us for it

Liz Truss is the virtuoso here, promising the Tory conference in October she was prepared to make hard choices for economic growth. Her “hard choices” crashed the economy, made us all poorer and the government’s popularity went base jumping.

“I’m not taking lessons from [add opponent’s name as appropriate]”

Translation: Watch me change the subject

Nicola Sturgeon’s favourite phrase, this, used regularly at First Minister’s Questions. Roughly it can be translated as: hey everyone, look over there! Typically used when the FM wants to change the subject.

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“I mis-spoke” [when caught saying something candid]

Translation: Whoops, was that on tape?

Number 10 said Ben Wallace “mis-spoke” when the defence minister was caught on microphone in 2019 suggesting in conversation with his French counterpart that Johnson had prorogued parliament because he lacked a majority (for his controversial approach to Brexit). The PM was pretending publicly that he’d done it to allow a new legislative agenda to be laid before parliament.

“Mis-spoke” can also be translated as “got it wrong”, as in February when Boris Johnson said Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich had been sanctioned when he hadn’t.

Why don’t they just say they “got it wrong”?

And a few more alternative interpretations:

“What I want to focus on…” – please stop asking me difficult questions

“I don’t think that’s the question you should be asking” – please please stop asking me difficult questions

“I don’t accept that analysis” – here are some other statistics that sound better

“It’s under constant review” – we’re putting off making a decision while we see which way the polls go

“There is a conversation to be had on this” – we’re committing to nothing

“It hasn’t in some respects worked quite as well as we had hoped” – we cocked it up

…. And: “The PM is not hiding under a desk” – the PM is under a desk, surrounded by empty sherry bottles

Just one parting thought: though we might despair of the double speak, do we really want the alternative? We may dream of straight-talking politicians who apply no filter to their words, but there’s a name for that: Donald Trump. Perhaps some careful hedging isn’t so bad.

You might even say there’s a conversation to be had.