Chris Bryant. Image: Gareth Phillips/Guardian/eyevine
Chris Bryant used to be a curate in the Church of England, a role that taught him not to be too much of a fundamentalist. It’s a mindset he has tried to maintain throughout his 22 years as a Labour MP. “I am not someone who thinks everyone on the other side of the house is a monster, most MPs are there to do good,” he says.
In recent years, that optimistic outlook must have been severely tested. Since 2020 he has chaired the Committees on Standards and Privileges, providing him with a front row seat for one of the most chaotic and corrupt parliaments in living memory.
For him, things reached a nadir in 2021 when his committee found Tory MP Owen Paterson guilty of paid advocacy (taking payments from a third party to raise questions in parliament) and recommended that he should be suspended, only for Boris Johnson to have the ruling overturned in the Commons. It felt like a watershed moment, in which the ruling elite closed ranks and subverted the rules to protect one of their own. Paterson eventually resigned as an MP but Bryant felt burned by the episode. “I felt a bit ashamed to be part of a parliament that allowed it to happen,” he says.
It was by no means an isolated incident. In today’s Westminster, rules are flouted, cronyism is rife and lying has become ever more flagrant. In the past four years, we’ve seen a record turnover of prime ministers and more members suspended for misconduct than ever before. It would be easy to blame it all on the plethora of bad apples that pervade the current political scene. But in his new book, Code Of Conduct: Why We Need to Fix Parliament – and How to Do it, Bryant argues that there are far deeper systemic problems that a change of personnel alone won’t fix.
The Big Issue: Was the Owen Paterson case the trigger for this book?
Chris Bryant: It was. Over the centuries, there have been lots of people who have been expelled from parliament or suspended or whatever. But I couldn’t find a single instance where the House of Commons had overturned a recommendation by the standards committee. And that’s what the government did. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg and the others did that to try and protect their mate. Which to me, in my mind, is the definition of corruption.
Did Boris Johnson see himself as above parliament?
Well, Johnson described my standards committee as a “kangaroo court”. A few years later, when the privileges committee was looking into whether he lied to parliament, he called them a kangaroo court too. There is no generation before this in which the senior figures in parliament have tried to so completely undermine the system. There are 22 MPs in this parliament since December 2019 who’ve either been suspended from the house for a day or more, or have resigned from parliament, because they know a report is coming that’s going to criticise them. And that is by far the worst parliament in our history. By a country mile.
The big problem in British politics is that there are very few checks and balances to hold back the power of the prime minister, whoever that may be. Once you get the keys to Downing Street, you can pretty much do what you want: you get to decide when parliament sits, how long it sits for, what it considers, what amendments get tabled, every single penny of expenditure and taxation by all the government departments – you even get to determine whether your own members of government have broken a ministerial code. And you get to appoint people to hundreds of government bodies and to the House of Lords. So it’s a phenomenal amount of power. And I think it’s healthier for that power to be spread about a bit, so parliament can be a bit more of an effective check on the PM.
Has this post-2019 parliament actually done us a favour by highlighting all the flaws in the system?
Yeah, completely. I think that this is a unique moment in our history, when we can say, ‘You know what, it’s time for another Great Reform Act. Let’s do things in a completely different way. Let’s press the reset button on the way we do parliament, and in particular, the way we do democratic politics in the UK.’ And I say this as somebody who was partly brought up in Spain under General Franco, the dictator. And I’ve lived in Argentina, just after the dictatorship there. And I’ve been a long-term critic of Putin. So I’m passionate about caring for democracy. But democracy doesn’t just happen when you vote in a booth. It also happens every single day when government exercises its authority by the consent of the British people. And that’s what I think we’ve lost sight of over the last few years.
Do you think the public care enough about parliamentary reform for it to be a vote winner?
I think these issues matter to voters. In the end it is about the use of power. Do we use power for the public good? Or do we use power just to protect our own party political advantage? We are servants of the people. I know that sounds awfully pious, and I try as much as possible in the book not to be pious or to be too preachy to other people. But the opinion polling is really, really stark. The levels of trust in politicians have fallen to all-time lows.
How much of this do you think is just down to a bad batch of individuals?
A government chief whip said to me that some people who got elected on his side in the last election should never have been elected onto a parish council, let alone being selected for a seat and ending up in parliament. And that may be true. I think another part of the problem may be that, you know, if you have a government in power for a long time, 13 or 14 years, maybe they do get complacent and arrogant and a bit entitled. But I think the big systemic problems have been there for much longer. You know, it’s an extraordinary fact that during Covid whether you believe in lockdown or not is immaterial. Nearly all the rules were introduced on secondary legislation, which meant it couldn’t be challenged by parliament. No MP could object or amend. This was legislation that denied people pretty basic rights and it wasn’t even published for MPs to debate. How can that be right?
Would a Labour government be any more likely to reform democracy?
I’ve never been a fundamentalist. I know that some of the ideas in this book might not be to everybody’s taste, or people might disagree with them. That’s absolutely fine. I want to have a debate about that. And I don’t suppose any government would implement every single suggestion in my book. But I do have confidence that the Labour Party knows we’ve got to press the reset button on the way we do democracy and parliamentary politics in this country.
So is this a Tory problem?
I’m not as tribal as some others would be. I want to see the good in every politician. And incidentally, I don’t like the whole business of people saying all politicians are the same. Because I sit in the chamber and I see people like Andrea Leadsom, who I disagree with about nearly everything under the sun, but then I think she’s done a lot of good work on kids and early years. And I could say that about loads of others. I think most MPs get into politics to do things to change the world for the better. We might disagree about what the better means and how to get that. But nonetheless I think most people do seek to do the right thing. And I think the bigger problem for the government is they’ve kind of got used to the system. And they’ve developed this mindset, which means that they think if you won the last general election, you can do what you want and that the most efficient way of running the country is just ploughing on. And I think that’s a mistake. Because if you play fast and loose with public standards you will pay the price at the next election. And what will this government have achieved in five years? Nothing other than losing its majority.
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