Chris Bryant doesn’t like the word “sleaze”.
As chair of the House of Commons Committee on Standards, which sits at the heart of parliament amid corruption allegations against politicians, he remembers the days when simply being gay counted as “sleazy”. (His civil partnership in 2010 was the first to be celebrated in the Commons, when he and his partner held their service in the Members’ Dining Room.)
“It’s not a word I like because I don’t think it’s very nuanced,” he said, speaking over video from his south Wales constituency Rhondda to the New Statesman podcast team.
Nevertheless, the current state of politics – with MPs under scrutiny for their second jobs and outside earnings following the Owen Paterson scandal – reminds Bryant of the age of so-called Tory sleaze under John Major in the Nineties.
“It actually feels more like the run-up to 1997 [than the expenses scandal of 2009],” he reflected. Bryant was a councillor at the time, before being elected Labour MP for Rhondda in 2001.
“Because every journalist I know is searching out sleaze stories. That’s the currency, and I think that will go on for months and months and months.”
In the Nineties, part of then-opposition leader Tony Blair’s pitch to the electorate was to clean up British politics. How, then, should the Labour Party under Keir Starmer approach the flood of scandals now hurting the government in the polls?
“There are things that a Labour government, or the Labour Party, in run-up to the next election, must say,” Bryant said. “I fully support the policy of saying that we wouldn’t have people able to be employed as consultants – consultant lobbyists, as it were – as MPs.” (Paterson was a paid consultant for Randox Laboratories and Lynn’s Country Foods.)
“I’d like us to say that we will have far greater respect for parliamentary conventions and some of those we might put into statute – I’d like to see the ministerial code put into statute, I’d like to see a future Labour prime minister commit to that,” Bryant revealed.
“And I’d like to see us believe in the checks and balances, which have sort of all been dismantled. So I think there is a good programme for a potential Labour government to put in place.”
Bryant, as the standards committee chair, is nonetheless passionate about “the reputation of the whole House – it’s the only way you can achieve change: I want parliamentary democracy to work”.
Regarded in Westminster as a font of knowledge on parliamentary procedure and the history of the Commons, Bryant reduced the chamber to silence during his widely praised speech about the Paterson case in early November.
“I know that some Conservatives changed their vote because of it,” he said. “Lots of Tories are absolutely furious… Especially the new intake, interestingly, many of whom I think previously thought that they owed their career to Boris Johnson. Now some of them think they might owe their demise to Boris Johnson.”
The peer and former secret service chief Jonathan Evans, head of a separate body called the Committee on Standards in Public Life, warned recently that, “We could slip into being a corrupt country and that’s why we need to be vigilant around these issues.”
Speaking to international media at the climate summit in Glasgow, Boris Johnson protested that “the UK is not remotely a corrupt country and I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt”.
Bryant warned there’s “a danger” of “us lapsing into corruption”, and argued “some of the actions that the government has taken recently have been corrupting”.
[See also: Why the “Tory sleaze” scandal isn’t going away]
“I hate the idea that there would be no checks and balances on government,” Bryant said. “I worry that over the last few years, lots of those have gone up in smoke, and I sometimes worry that the government is seeking to burn more of those.”
The consequence, he warned, could be constituents concluding: “‘Well, you’re all as bad as each other, we might as well not bother voting.’ We’ve only had universal suffrage for 100 years, so this is a precious thing we need to protect.”
In 2020, Owen Paterson’s wife, Rose, took her own life. When deciding how to sanction the MP for his breaches of the code of conduct, Bryant’s committee accounted for these tragic circumstances.
“I have known people who’ve taken their own lives,” said Bryant. “When I was a priest, I led the funerals for quite a lot of people, in particular young people, who’ve taken their own lives.
“I know the mixed emotions tied up in all of that… It was partly because of all of those considerations that we took it [the suspension] down to 30 days.”
He revealed that there was a view on his committee that Paterson should have faced a “three-month or six-month suspension, which would have been consonant with what had been given to other people in previous similar situations”.
He gave the examples of Patrick Mercer, a former Tory MP suspended for six months in 2014 for allegedly asking questions in the chamber in return for money, and Keith Vaz, a former Labour MP suspended for six months in 2019 for offering to buy drugs for sex workers and failing to cooperate with an investigation.
“The biggest problem is that Owen Paterson was adamant he would do the same thing all over again,” Bryant said.
“I think Owen was in denial, probably still is in denial, and consequently he led all his friends rather up the garden path. And quite a few of them have said so to me since,” he said.
Looking into reforming the MPs’ code of conduct, Bryant’s committee – which is made up of seven MPs and seven lay members – is due to report later this year. (“It might even be an early Christmas, it might be out before advent!” smiled the former Church of England vicar.)
He hinted at rule changes surrounding political consultancy work. “There is one recommendation that has come forward to us, repeatedly since 2018, from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is that you shouldn’t be able to have a job where you’re effectively a paid adviser on how to get your way around politics, which just seems a conflict of interest.”
The “key issue” for Bryant is whether there is inappropriate use of the letters “MP” after one’s name.
“Now, being a GP, in some situations being a lawyer, or for that matter, a dentist or a vet, or writing books, articles, doing a bit of broadcasting, all of that it seems to me there’s no conflict of interest,” he said. “So there is an area where we could probably tighten up, which is that area where there’s a conflict of interest.”
As long as there is no such conflict, Bryant is “relaxed” about MPs working second jobs. Yet he does warn they now work longer than ever. His own constituency casework had quadrupled in the past two years. “It’s really tough, it’s 60 hours a week. It’s been much more intense than in all my time as an MP, [and] it puts enormous pressure on MPs,” he said.
“You feel you have to answer emails even if they come in at 11.30 on a Saturday night when you’ve only just finished watching the catch-up of Strictly – because I’m not watching the whole thing all the way through, there’s far too much padding. I mean the padding in the show, not the costumes… I’m not talking about Adam Peaty at all!”
Listen to the full interview with Anoosh Chakelian, Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush on the latest episode of the “New Statesman Podcast” here.