Labour MP Chris Bryant on cleaning up parliament, and why he’s not afraid to pick a fight (2024)

Chris Bryant can clearly remember the moment – 3.29pm, 3 November 2021. That was when the Labour MP and chair of the standards committee feared that democracy was done for. The previous week, an investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, had found that Conservative MP Owen Paterson had committed “an egregious case of paid advocacy” to benefit two companies he was paid to advise, including the health firm Randox. Bryant’s committee recommended Paterson be suspended from the Commons for 30 sitting days, and now was the time for the house to vote on it. But prime minister Boris Johnson wasn’t happy with the findings or the recommendation, so the Tories did a very Johnsonian thing. They ripped up the rulebook. Former Conservative minister Andrea Leadsom proposed an amendment to pause Paterson’s suspension and set up a new Tory-led committee to examine how investigations should be carried out in future. Simple. If you don’t like justice, change the judiciary.

“It was really dangerous, what they proposed to do,” Bryant says today. “I still find it shocking that some Tories who I quite respect put their name to the amendment to scrap our committee, create a new one, no lay members on it, and with a Tory majority, chaired by a Tory MP, John Whittingdale. He rang me and said, ‘Well nobody asked me!’” The amendment was passed by 250 votes to 232. It was the first time the Commons had rejected a recommendation from its own disciplinary committee to suspend an MP for misconduct. “A lad said to me in the gym in the Rhondda the other day, when the Boris Johnson report came out from the privileges committee, saying he’d deliberately misled the house over breaches of lockdown rules, ‘If he gets away with this, there’s literally no point in voting ever again.’ And that’s what the Owen Paterson moment felt like for me.” The amendment was followed by an uproar. Paterson resigned the next day and order was briefly restored.

But it left Bryant convinced parliament was now beyond the pale. I ask if he felt like quitting. God, no, he says. He’d spent a lifetime fighting – often to good effect, sometimes recklessly – and there was no better time for a crusade. Two years on, he’s published the result, Code of Conduct: Why We Need to Fix Parliament – And How to Do It. It may have a soporific title, but it’s an important book that could lead to much-needed change.

Labour MP Chris Bryant on cleaning up parliament, and why he’s not afraid to pick a fight (1)

Bryant, who has previously written biographies of Glenda Jackson and Stafford Cripps, and the real-life thriller The Glamour Boys (about the contribution of Britain’s gay MPs in the second world war), says his publishers have always told him to cut down on the facts. But here the facts are essential as he shows we’re approaching the butt end of the worst parliament in history. “Twenty-one MPs have been suspended by the house, resigned their seats or left the chamber before being suspended for a day or more since the general election in December 2019,” he writes in the draft version.

When we meet, in a restaurant close to parliament, he apologises for the stats with a smile. “They’re already out of date because it’s now 23 MPs.” The offences range from sexual assault of a minor, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and watching p*rn in the Commons, to paid lobbying, bullying, abuse and harassment, bringing the house into disrepute, interfering in a judicial proceeding, disorderly conduct and misuse of stationery. “That is statistically the worst record of any parliament in our history, by a long chalk,” he says.

Then there are the everyday lies. And he’s not just talking about Johnson, who earned himself a reputation for never knowingly telling the truth as PM. Bryant says Rishi Sunak is no stranger to telling porkies, either – he was told off by the UK Statistics Authority for giving inaccurate figures in telling the Commons the backlog of individual asylum applications was half what it was when Labour left office. The truth is they stood at 18,954 in June 2010 and 166,261 when Sunak spoke to the house. “He has still not corrected the record, despite repeated requests to do so.” But Bryant himself has form on this front. Last month, he finally apologised for wrongly saying in parliament in March 2022 that Nigel Farage had been paid £548,000 by the Russian state.

He orders trout in butter bean sauce, and apple juice, and tells me he knows what’s coming his way. Bryant is prepared to be scrutinised for his own shortcomings, of which there are plenty. What are his biggest failings? “I can be too pompous, too bumptious, too loud,” he says. “I’ve got in more scrapes than most people. [Conservative MP] Christopher Chope says I think very highly of myself, which is undoubtedly a failing I have.”

His analysis is spot-on. Bryant is super-smart and knows it. Self-criticism is often tempered by a boast. He quotes another Tory MP who warned him the night before he spoke in the Paterson debate. “Mark Fletcher said to me, ‘You have to be very careful, Chris, because you are 80% brilliant and 20% crap,’ so I had to make sure none of the crap was in what I had to say.” He thinks it’s a funny quote, and admits he can be rude, abrupt, sarcastic, angry. What does he do when he gets angry? “I play the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem. It punches out the anger.”

For all his arrogance and vanity, Bryant is empathic and likable. So many MPs are career politicians and struggle to relate to the rest of us – or can’t be bothered to. Bryant has done lots of jobs and has lived an incredibly varied life. Despite his English accent, he was born and spent his early years in Cardiff before moving to Spain between the ages of seven and 12 for his father’s work. His Scottish mother came from a professional middle-class family; his father was a working-class kid who became an early adopter of computers and had a successful career in IT. Bryant returned to Britain to be educated at the prestigious public school Cheltenham College, performed with the National Youth Theatre, did a degree in English at Oxford, a second degree in theology, joined the Tory party, had relationships with women, was ordained at 24 and came out as gay shortly after. And that’s just the early years.

Labour MP Chris Bryant on cleaning up parliament, and why he’s not afraid to pick a fight (2)

Bryant has spent the past 22 representing Rhondda in parliament. He has exposed hom*ophobia, harassment and bullying, been outed for posing in a pair of pants on the Gaydar dating website, and taken on power brokers from Putin to Prince Andrew and Rupert Murdoch. In 2003, he drew the admission from Rebekah Brooks (then Wade) during a select committee hearing that News International made payments to the police. It played a crucial part in exposing the hacking scandal, leading to the closure of the News of the World. Soon after, the Sun and other papers ran the pants photo. In 2010 Bryant took legal action against the Metropolitan police to ensure victims were informed they had been hacked.

A few years ago, Bryant saw a therapist. He said he was the least depressed person he’d ever met, telling him, “You’re just pissed off because you lost the election.” Over the two sessions, he claims he made only one other observation: “‘Is it about fathers?’” He can’t remember what it was in reference to, but thinks he had a point. “A lot of things are about fathers, aren’t they? Wanting to please them, make them proud of you, all that.”

But the more he talks, the more you realise how much he was shaped by his mother. He adored her: they shared a love of art, music and theatre. But she was a desperate alcoholic, and he had to care for her after his father left the family home when Bryant was 16. She became his mission. “Mum’s alcoholism made me feel constantly powerless because all I wanted to do was rescue her. Her friend told me, ‘You can’t live your mother’s life for her’ and her GP said she’d have to hit her own rock bottom.” Did you accept that? “No. Why on earth would you? What I had to learn was that Mum wasn’t deciding to do a, b, c, or to lie to me or numb whatever pain she had; it was an illness.” He remembers the terrible fits she had when withdrawing from alcohol, the two times she flooded her flat, the occasion she set fire to it.

When he was 18, his parents divorced. He became estranged from his father and didn’t see him for 30 years. “Dad’s interpretation was that I had taken Mum’s side. My version was that somebody had to look after her because she was a mess.” Bryant tells me about the time he found her a flat in Glasgow. He was now in his late 20s, a Hackney councillor, and he went to stay with her. “She needed new clothes so I bought her two or three outfits at Marks & Spencer, and I came back two, three weeks later and she’d taken them back and exchanged them for vodka. I’d never been so cross in my life.”

Did you tell her how cross you were? “I did in a way that I feel shameful about today.’” What did you say? “I don’t want to tell you, I still feel too guilty.” Bryant was 31 when she died. He couldn’t get in touch with her, so he asked a friend to check on her. He couldn’t get in, so the police broke the door down. “She died of an overdose of paracetamol and alcohol. The procurator fiscal asked me if I wanted to investigate whether it was deliberate. I said, ‘In one way it’s neither here nor there because she had effectively been killing herself for 20 years by drinking two bottles of vodka a day.’” Was any part of you relieved when she died? “What do you think?” he asks, the emotion visible. “Yes, it’s horrible to lose a parent, but in many ways I’d lost her hundreds of times. So part of me was relieved, then guilty that I felt relieved, then angry that I felt guilty about feeling relieved.”

By then, his life had gone through so many changes. What made him a Tory at university? He didn’t know any different: “I’d come out of a public school where everyone was a Tory.” Actually, he says, compared with many of his public school peers he was a radical. “I signed up to the Tory reform group. That was my first rebellion.”

He had also gone into the church. “I felt I had survived difficult teenage years, not because I was wonderful, but because I’d had support from lots of church people and I wanted to put something back.”

At 24, soon after being ordained, his girlfriend gave him some news. “The wonderful Donna said, ‘Well, Christopher, you do know you’re gay, don’t you?” How did that feel? “It was probably a relief she was saying it to me rather than me saying it to her.” They split up, but are still good friends. When he married Jared Cranney, a company secretary, back in 2010, she sang at the ceremony (it was the first civil partnership service in the Houses of Parliament).

Donna didn’t have a problem with him being gay, but the church did. “I came out to my vicar and he said, ‘I hate it when gays thrust it down your throat.’ I went to see the Bishop of Stepney and he said, ‘Well, I’m very supportive of gays in the clergy but I have a terrible problem with anal intercourse.’ I was like: you people, what are you like? It was double entendre central. A friend said I should have suggested he try K-Y Jelly.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant on cleaning up parliament, and why he’s not afraid to pick a fight (3)

It wasn’t just the church’s hom*ophobia that was a problem. He felt the advice he was handing out to parishioners was at odds with his lifestyle. “I was a young gay man who feared commitment but was advising people on marriage and how to parent.” Did you feel a hypocrite? “No, I felt inadequate. I thought, I’ve come from a broken family, and I’ve only just worked out I’m gay, and I’m telling you how to live life.”

Bryant left the church in 1991. Had you lost your faith? “No, it made me lose attendance. I’ve still got exactly the same faith I always had.” In the space of a few years, he did many different jobs – election agent for Labour MP Frank Dobson, author, insurance salesman, London manager of the charity Common Purpose. By now he had come to realise that his liberal conservatism was a better fit with New Labour. In 1997, he was the unsuccessful Labour candidate for Wycombe, then was hired by the BBC in a lobbying role as head of European affairs. Bryant is fond of quoting from popular songs to describe his life. This time he opts for I’m Still Here from the musical Follies. “In the words of Stephen Sondheim, ‘You career from career to career.’”

In a way, he says, it all makes sense. “I’ve still got my school reports and in my final term, the headmaster said: ‘He’s full of drama and moral courage.’” Was he good enough to become a professional actor? “Obviously not,” he says. I felt I had a degree of personal strength. I wanted to put that to use, then the church made it clear they didn’t want gays in the clergy. I still wanted to have a purpose in life, to do something that had a sense of drama and used my strengths, and moving from the church to politics was not difficult.”

Fifty-two people applied for the candidature of Rhondda in south Wales in 2000. To everybody’s astonishment, Bryant – a posh, gay, former Tory – was selected for the traditional Labour working-class constituency, and in 2001 he retained the seat with a 16,047 majority. He was on a high. Two years later came his nadir when the tabloids published the photograph of him in his pants that he had sent to somebody on Gaydar. “I invented the selfie!” he says today. He can laugh about it now, but he couldn’t at the time. I had read what a terrible period it was for him, but never knew quite how bad till today. Did you think it would do for your career? “I thought it would do for my life,” he says baldly. By then he was back in touch with his father. “They managed to track my dad down. They landed on my brother’s doorstep and tried to embarrass him. They were offering tens of thousands of pounds, and you felt every 10 minutes you’re fighting something else. The bit that was really bizarre was that I couldn’t understand how they had some phone numbers and it was because they’d hacked my phone. A journalist from the Mail came up to me and said, ‘We’ve been taking bets on whether you’ll commit suicide by Christmas.’ I didn’t sleep for three months.” Jesus, I say, horrified. Did you contemplate suicide? “I entertained conjecture of it. I certainly never planned it, but I was conscious of it as a thought that floated somewhere up there.”

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Bryant slowly recovered. He received propositions from men and women afterwards, and increased his majority in the next election. He says the people of Rhondda are more liberal than the nation’s press or many of his fellow MPs. In parliament, he was taunted by some, sexually harassed by others. “That is part of what has changed because nowadays I would make a complaint.” What did he do back then? “I avoided the person concerned. In every case it was from somebody who, to this day, has never admitted their sexuality.” Did you challenge them? “No, and I feel an element of guilt about that, because I should have done.”

Bryant is dismissive of his early years in parliament – partly because of how he was treated by others and partly because of what he was like himself. “There was a time I had an ambition that was all about rising to high office. It made me a pretty odious member of the Commons,” he told the Guardian in 2010. Four years earlier he had played a prominent role in trying to unseat Tony Blair. Was that because he had been left on the backbenches? “No.” He had been a Blair loyalist till he wasn’t. When Blair said he would resign midway though his third term, Bryant lost the faith. “The moment you say you’re going to go, you might as well go because you’re diminishing your authority and that’s destabilising.”

Why do you think you haven’t achieved high office? Are you too difficult? He swallows a huge piece of trout with surprising elegance and tells me the political commentator Iain Dale regularly asks him the same question, then answers on his behalf. “His version is I’m a bloody pain.” Has he got a point? “Maybe. A bit.” In what way? “Well, I work really hard.” That doesn’t make you a pain, I say. “No, what I mean is I constantly churn stuff out. Some of my ideas fall on stony ground and some aren’t great ideas.” I think what he means is he has too many of his own ideas and isn’t a yes man.

Does Jared tell him to calm down on the ideas front? “No, he just says, ‘10% less, dear.’ On Question Time he used to make me write it on my hand.” What does Jared mean – 10% less loudness, enthusiasm, pomposity? “All the above.” Do you ever wish you’d shut up? “Completely. I’ve had Twitter rows when I’ve been completely wrong and made myself look an idiot, and I’ve felt miserable.”

Have you ever thought your outspokenness will do for you? “Yeah. Definitely with Murdoch. Putin, to be honest. I’m probably Putin’s longest-standing critic in parliament. And at one point I was also suing the Met over the phone hacking stuff and having a row with the Palace over Prince Andrew.” (Bryant had called for him to stand down as a trade envoy.) “Jared said, ‘Could we kindly limit the number of enemies we’re building up?’”

Perhaps you like making enemies, I suggest. “No. I’m happy to have a row, but I will have agonies of guilt about it afterwards, about whether I’ve been too loud or too cross. But in the way I run my office, I’m endlessly building teams.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant on cleaning up parliament, and why he’s not afraid to pick a fight (4)

At 61, Bryant looks good – smart and svelte in an electric blue suit, youthful, a full head of hair except for a white scar at the back that looks like a side door into his brain. Four years ago he noticed a tiny mole. Jared spotted it because Bryant had had his hair shaved at the back of his neck. He assumed it was nothing significant. But it was: advanced stage 3B melanoma. “I said, ‘What are my chances?’ and was told, ‘Of living? Forty per cent chance of living a year.’” How did you react? “I grabbed the table, I grabbed Jared, I cried. I went white as a sheet. I thought, right, I’m a goner.”

Three weeks later he received good news. He was told immunotherapy and targeted therapy had just been licensed for people at stage three and this would take his chances of living more than a year from 40% to 90%.

He knows how lucky he’s been, and he’s not just talking about the cancer. For so much of his childhood, family life was dysfunctional. Now, he says, it couldn’t be better – he’s close to Jared’s family, loves his brother and gets on better than ever with his father since they overcame their differences. Has he given up on achieving high political office? “No. I would serve in whatever capacity.” He laughs. “That sounds terribly pious. The one thing I hate is sounding pious. But if Keir wants me to do something now, I would do it.”

There’s one thing he’s desperate for, he says: a Labour government with a commitment to constitutional reform as part of the manifesto. The year he entered parliament he campaigned for an elected second chamber; he is still doing so today. Is it likely? “Well, it’s not expensive, it’s important and Keir likes doing things properly. So I hope … ” He doesn’t sound wholly confident.

Bryant’s book does not simply expose the shortcomings of parliament; it’s a manifesto for reform. It lays out everything he thinks must change: the government of the day’s power must be reduced (he quotes Abba this time – “The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall”); second jobs must be restricted; MPs must be sanctioned for lying and not correcting inaccuracies; the disparate disciplinary organisations must be united into a single standards committee run by a non-MP; and on it goes. The suggestions are sensible and would doubtless result in a parliament less susceptible to abuse, sexual harassment and corruption.

Which takes us back to him. He’s waiting for his many critics to point out his own shortcomings, and ask why, of all politicians, Chris Bryant should be the one to tell us how to get our house in order. So we have a test run of likely allegations. He’s relaxed about Pantsgate now – sure, it was embarrassing, but he didn’t actually do anything wrong. Then there’s the time he alleged “clear bullying” in the division lobby during the fracking vote the day before Liz Truss resigned, and an internal investigation found no evidence of it. “I know it upset some of the Tory whips. I apologised, but lots of Labour and SNP colleagues still think it was bullying.” (As he points out in Code of Conduct, undermining an apology is against parliamentary rules.) In 2020 he had to apologise to Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle for heckling and it was claimed he mimed “f*ck off” at him (he is adamant he said “for heaven’s sake”).

He’s less keen to mention the expenses scandal, from which he didn’t emerge well. Bryant flipped his second home twice in two years and claimed over £92,000 in expenses in the five years leading up to the scandal. After rules were changed to prevent MPs from claiming mortgage payments on second homes, Bryant moved out of his apartment and rented the property for around £3,000 a month. He then rented a new home, and between July 2010 and January 2015 claimed £84,350 in expenses to pay for it. I ask if he regards this behaviour as ethical or is ashamed of it. “I’m much happier where we are now,” he says vaguely. For once he looks discomfited. “We had a preposterous system and I did like everybody else, but that’s not good enough. So yeah, I wish it had all been different and I’d done differently.” A 2015 Channel 4 News investigation showed he was one of only 46 MPs who let out their properties after claiming mortgage repayments was banned. The practice was allowed under rules set by the expenses watchdog, and the loophole still hasn’t been closed. “I never broke the rules or the law, but that’s not good enough,” he says. “I wish I’d been much stricter with myself. I got out of that arrangement more than eight years ago.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant on cleaning up parliament, and why he’s not afraid to pick a fight (5)

This year, he accepted a knighthood despite writing Entitled, a book that rails against titles and aristocracy. Was there no part of you that thought it would be hypocritical to accept it? “Yes, of course.” He giggles. How did you convince yourself it was the right thing to do? “I said, Christopher, most of the people in the Rhondda if offered a knighthood would go: ‘That is a great honour, thank you.’ And most people in the Rhondda, if they knew Chris Bryant had been offered one, would say, ‘Hurrah, well done, absolutely fabulous’ as indeed they did. I also thought my dad would be very proud.” Bryant accepts he’s not always lived his values.

So is he the right man to hold MPs to account on their standards? He insists he is, for two reasons. First, his knowledge. “I have probably studied the history of parliament more than any other MP, and I am a bit of a rules freak,” he writes in the book’s foreword. Second, and perhaps most importantly, is his understanding of human frailty and temptation. He’s spent his whole life witnessing it – his mother with her vodka, the church and its bigotry, the closeted MPs feeling him up, and politicians just being, well, politicians.

He talks about the times he’s let himself down, and doesn’t sound as if he thinks quite so highly of himself now. “If I’m giving myself a tick for anything, it’s that I know where the faultlines in my own personality are and am happy to own up to them. Sometimes you are envious, sometimes you are greedy. And you have to live with the fact that elements of yourself are not great.”

The more he shows his humility, the more I’m convinced he’s the right person for the job. Rather than preaching from a pulpit, as he has done in the past, he wants to show his fellow politicians how they can all improve – himself included. “I don’t want MPs to be perfect, I don’t want MPs to even be good. I just want us to be good enough. And we all need to do this much better to be good enough.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant on cleaning up parliament, and why he’s not afraid to pick a fight (2024)
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