There is a guardedness about almost every experienced politician, learned out of necessity and self-preservation.
After more than two decades in Westminster, Chris Bryant certainly has it – and so despite the relaxed circumstances of our conversation, over coffee and croissants in a north London cafe, he takes a moment to consider each of his responses, however innocuous my questions may seem.
We’re here to discuss parliamentary reform and standards, partly due to his role as chair of the Commons Committee on Standards, but mostly as a result of his new book, Code of Conduct: Why We Need to Fix Parliament. Embarrassingly, we have a slight conflict of interest ourselves: not only do we both have books out with the same publisher, but we shared an editor and a publicist. It is a small world indeed.
Bryant’s core theme is that parliament is on trial, and if MPs don’t act swiftly they could lose voters’ trust for ever. He points to the incremental changes he’s managed to make, and others he’s pushing for, but also hopes to force something of an “arms race” on parliamentary standards in party manifestos for the next election.
The question though is whether incremental change carried out in a business-as-usual way is enough to fix politics. There are now 15 current MPs who have lost their party’s whip, effectively disowning them for one misdemeanour or the other, more than there are Lib Dem MPs (14). There are also a further five MPs who stood down after being named in scandals or criminality, and a Conservative MP accused of rape who still has the whip but has been asked not to attend parliament (though is said to have recently gone on an MPs’ fact-finding trip overseas).
Does all this show parliament’s problems are more serious than some of his solutions suggest? Bryant is keen to stress that not all Westminster scandals are equal.
He says: “It is clearly different if an MP sends a letter that they shouldn’t do on the wrong kind of letterhead, or they forget to register something within 28 days, they do it on the 29th, or the 30th day – that is clearly different to taking hundreds of thousands of pounds and peddling influence on behalf of a paying client – for that matter look at all the work Boris Johnson lined up.”
Yet he knows that the worst scandals disgust the public, and that ordinary voters are bemused and outraged by the partisan reaction of some MPs when wrongdoing has clearly been proven. “I’m still worried that an awful lot of people abstained on the Boris Johnson line vote. And 250 people voted to exonerate Owen Paterson,” he says.
While it might not be loud enough for some, Bryant’s quiet work goes on. In his role on the standards committee, he’s helped to pass new rules governing all-party parliamentary groups. Elsewhere, he’s been trying to fix a land drainage issue for constituents, is working with the government on a strategy on acquired brain injury and contributed to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent report on the Wagner group – Russia’s private army.
It sounds like a decent slate of activity, yet he has been the subject of criticism for doing the rounds to promote his book while being paid as a serving MP. The curious thing is that the source of the criticism was none other than Nadine Dorries, the now-departing MP who used Bryant’s case to suggest that criticism aimed at her for publishing a book was unfair and perhaps even sexist, because Bryant had done the same thing.
Where the wheels perhaps fall off that wagon is that Bryant’s book is a non-partisan one about reforming parliament, while Dorries’s The Plot – written during what appeared to be a long period of Commons inactivity – looks set to blame anyone except Boris Johnson himself for Johnson’s downfall. Isn’t this self-serving attack on him a sign of the root problem with parliamentary standards, I ask Bryant?
“I’m not perfect. And I don’t actually expect anybody else to be perfect in parliament,” he says. “I think I cut from the book the line from the Merchant of Venice – ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed?’ – we can become just fair game, and people draw an equivalence between the most minor indiscretions and the biggest and most flagrant abuses… it undermines the whole confidence in public service.” If that sounds like letting Dorries off easily, here is what Bryant tweeted after her unhinged resignation statement: “People often ask me to comment on individual instances of alleged misconduct. Often I can’t… because it may come before my committee.”
The public clearly care a great deal about standards and the integrity of their MPs. But I ask Bryant whether the problem runs deeper – because the normal operation of British politics requires people to say things they don’t believe. Collective responsibility means all ministers have to pretend they like every single government policy. If backbenchers want a prospect of promotion, they have to join in too. Anyone who works in Westminster knows this. But why should the public have to learn the intricate system of when to believe or disbelieve an MP?
Bryant notes that collective responsibility of some sort is essential for a functioning government, but agrees that we could have a more grown-up version of it. Ministers should be allowed to say that a policy wasn’t their first choice, but that they supported the overall good work of the government and so accept the decision.
“You’re not allowed to diverge in any way from the party line,” he says. “And that is a problem in that it’s stultifying.
It also infantilises both voters and politicians.” He encourages politicians to try to answer the question they’re asked, rather than being habitually evasive and to just say, straight up, if they can’t or won’t answer a question for some reason – though he stresses he has not lived up to this standard at all moments through his career.
Given his role on one of the many parliamentary watchdogs, it is the standards side of politics upon which Bryant most focuses – who MPs can take money from, what they should declare, how they should behave. Given this flurry of scandals, it is a fertile field.
Bryant walks a difficult line. He is a sincere campaigner for real reform, but he also understands the complexities of operating as an MP – which means he is unwilling to embrace populist “fixes” like banning second jobs.
Some MPs, Bryant notes, are farmers – surely we don’t want to ban someone from milking their own cows? MPs who are also barristers risk losing their status at the bar if they don’t do at least a few hours a year. Banning occasional newspaper columns would seem draconian. Some MPs are doctors – who would begrudge a bit of shift work for the NHS? Quickly you end up with a list of exceptions that just keeps growing.
Instead, Bryant suggests focusing on the jobs with the highest risk of creating conflicts – like consultancy or public affairs roles. You might also focus on limiting hours spent on second jobs, but Bryant does note that the most common second job for an MP is being a minister, and that comes with punishing hours. Capping earnings from second jobs might also work, but Bryant doesn’t think there is any one fix.
This is a common theme across the different standards issues facing MPs. Given the ongoing “pestminster” scandals, a common refrain is that the Palace of Westminster should shut down all of its bars. Bryant says this would, in practice, just move the problem slightly.
“Chris Pincher didn’t happen on the estate,” he notes, referencing the scandal in which Tory MP Pincher was found to have groped multiple staffers – starting a domino reaction that eventually ended Johnson’s premiership. “So if you close all the bars in parliament, I think what you would do is push it to other places where there’ll be even fewer rules and even less scrutiny.”
Pincher’s victims were men – and many men I know in Westminster (gay and straight) have been the victims of harassment. I ask whether parliament has a particular problem with this, and whether male victims are taken as seriously as women. Bryant notes that parliament has a particularly unhealthy mix of people on this front: “I have been very conscious that young gay men arriving in parliament, some of whom have worked out their sexuality, some of whom haven’t, are working with some older men – some of whom have worked out their sexuality and some of whom haven’t – it is not a great combination in a situation of patronage and power.”
Yet the institutions of parliament are set up to enable this and other kinds of abuse. I point out that the speaker’s committee has again rejected reforms to how MPs employ their staff. Each MP employs their own team directly, meaning that if they are bullying or harassing you, you’re complaining about your ultimate boss. Surely real change is impossible until that changes?
He tells me it’s a non-starter. “I’m more relaxed about it than others. But everybody else is so violently opposed to it,” he says with a shrug. Instead, he’s trying to push measures that might be harder to resist – he suggests that all MPs (not just new ones) should have mandatory employment and HR training before they can hire staff. He also suggests that parliamentary authorities could log which MPs have especially high staff turnover and target them for supervision and retraining.
Bryant is finishing his croissant and it is clear our time is coming to an end. I ask whether part of the problem of parliament is that it is unable to get anything done – they can’t even agree on works to stop Westminster falling down. How can we trust MPs to fix the country if they can’t even fix the roof?
“Well, to be fair the roof is fine,” he notes with a laugh, correcting me. “The one project that came in on budget and on time is the cast-iron roofs project.”
Remembering he is speaking to the New European, Bryant notes with a touch of delight that the new roofing is laid in one-metre-square tiles – then hopes this won’t prompt Jacob Rees-Mogg to demand they are reinstalled in yards.
But Bryant agrees that parliament just doesn’t seem to be doing its job very well – his hope is that one day a government will be brave enough to give MPs control of the parliamentary timetable, so they can have more power and influence. But he agrees it seems a long shot.
Bryant had said parliament was on trial, so I close by asking him a simple question: if he were on the jury, how would he vote? He pauses, then says: “Well, it has to be a unanimous verdict, and I don’t know who my other 11 jurors are. Well, I think we’re on trial so… I guess the trial is not complete.”