The Chris Bryant interview: "It is a bizarre irony that I am chair of the Committee on Standards"
(Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer)
Chris Bryant has been through a few political scrapes, so recognises the irony that he is now chair of the Standards Committee. He tells Tali Fraser about the recent furore in the division lobbies, trying to hold his tongue and surviving cancer. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer.
“Lord, love a duck!” That is how Chris Bryant predicts future historians will react to the past decade of Westminster politics.
“If you think of just the short space since 2016: Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak, I think they’ll see it as a pretty extraordinary period,” he says. It is a period in which Bryant, 60, claims the government “did not get around to doing anything, because it spent most of his time gyrating on its own navel”.
It has been a busy period for the Labour MP too; now in his second decade in Parliament, he has spent the last two-and-a-half-years as chair of the Standards Committee, a body which has come increasingly to the fore amid a series of scandals which have come before it. We meet in Bryant’s parliamentary office, with a view straight out onto Big Ben. It is packed with political diaries – Bryant says he may publish one too, having kept a detailed diary since 2002 – alongside history books, including his own on Parliament’s history.
There could soon be a television series based on one of Bryant’s books, The Glamour Boys, about a group of young, gay British MPs who visited Berlin on a series of trips that would alter the course of the Second World War. He says: “All the history I write, [is about events] other people have not really bothered with and this is a little bit of 1930s history which has gone a bit unnoticed.” Two writers, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who wrote the recent film She Said, and Wash Westmoreland, writer of the Oscar-winning Still Alice, are working on an outline of the script. “I have already said that if we do get to make it, I am playing the Speaker because it is the only way I will ever get to be it,” he jokes, having unsuccessfully run for the role in 2019.
It is more modern pursuits which are occupying Bryant today. As I enter his office, he is writing a speech for on what he calls “the truth algorithm”. “It is about how algorithms work in social media and how that is distorted,” he says.
Problems involving social media affect Bryant directly. The amount of abuse he gets, especially over Twitter, has got so severe that he has a company monitoring his accounts as swathes of Russian bots bombard him [he is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia]. It doesn’t bother Bryant too much as he claims to be “pretty emotionally tough”. After the 2010 election he was concerned he might have depression. “I went to my GP who sent me off to a psychiatrist,” he says. “After an hour, [the psychiatrist] said to me: ‘Mr Bryant, you are the least depressed person I have ever met. You are just pissed off that you lost the general election!’” Here Bryant collapses into wheezing laughter.
But he is serious, and noticeably down beat, about where British politics is now: “I cannot remember a moment when the United Kingdom was in such a perilous state.” He believes that successive Conservative leaders have contributed to what he sees as a decline in political standards. Bryant’s comments about one of them in particular, Boris Johnson, led to him recusing himself as chair of the Privileges Committee, amid concerns it would make the group’s inquiry into whether the former prime minister misled Parliament over parties in Downing Street partisan. Were those comments a dereliction of his responsibilities? “I never thought it would ever come to the Privileges Committee,” he says. “I have a rule for myself, because I get asked to comment on every single standards issue going: I turn down 95 per cent of requests, because I think it might come to my committee so I have to be impartial.”
I cannot remember a moment when the United Kingdom was in such a perilous state
Of all the issues, wasn’t this one where he should have held his tongue? He insists: “I never thought that it would ever come to us, which is why I was opining left, right and centre – or left, left and left.” (He adds that part of him is “delighted” he is not part of the Johnson investigation “because there are other things to be doing in life”.)
Bryant also recently placed himself at the centre of the row over the chaotic vote on fracking which helped bring about the end of Liz Truss’s premiership. He alleged that scenes in the division lobbies amounted to bullying, with MPs physically manhandled. An inquiry by the Serjeant-at-Arms and senior clerks found no evidence anyone was bullied, nor was there physical pressure to vote. Does he stand by what he says he saw? “I do.” Despite what the inquiry said? “What I would consider to be intimidatory behaviour and bullying, maybe I have a lower threshold for that than some others would,” he concedes.
There is one specific, if controversial, reform Bryant thinks could have prevented the furore around the fracking vote: cameras in the division lobby. “In my 21 years as an MP, the worst behaviour by MPs that I have seen has either been in the bar, all of which is quite well documented, or is in the division lobbies. If there had been cameras in the division lobby, nobody would have had to look for evidence, the evidence would have been there,” he says. Bryant says this is an issue which affected the clerks who, up until recently, tallied votes in the lobbies – and some of whom, he says, have even complained of inappropriate touching. “It is striking the number of clerks who said to me that they are delighted they no longer have to sit in the division lobbies for counting, because we now do it with our passes, because the hectoring attitude, the bullying and sometimes even the touching up of clerks by MPs in the division lobbies, was just beyond.”
It is a space where Bryant himself faced distressing experiences. At the start of his MP career he was regularly touched up in the division lobbies by older, senior men in Parliament who were not yet openly gay. Would he ever report the behaviour retroactively? Of the five he says touched him inappropriately, “One is still around... two are dead” and two more are troubled: “I don’t want to add to all that,” he adds.
There are other things he would report now which he did not previously. Bryant claims a number of MPs have tried to lobby him about their cases as they come to the Standards Committee: “Now every single time anyone approaches me, I just report it straight to the Commissioner, because that in itself is a breach of the code. You wouldn’t go to the judge to try to bend the judge’s ear.”
The question of whether Bryant applies the same level of standards to himself as his committee is sometimes raised by his critics. What about his behaviour, including once calling former Labour leader Ed Miliband a “tosspot” and threatening to “punch him”? “Let me make it absolutely clear that sometimes I get things wrong. I often think to myself that it is not only an irony, but a bizarre irony that I am chair of the Committee on Standards, because if you were to look for 10 MPs who may have had more scrapes than anybody else, I’d be on the list,” he says, later joking, “I can be a very naughty boy”.
What of complaints of his hypocrisy? Bryant sought unsuccessfully to add the word “respect” to the Parliamentary Behaviour Code but also apologised to Speaker Lindsay Hoyle after being accused of telling him to “fuck off” during a heated exchange, something he denies. He hits back: “I know some people would say, ‘Chris, you’re just a terrible hypocrite because you’ve made mistakes and you criticise others for making mistakes.’ But I try to draw a distinction between standards [like conflict of interest issues] and making mistakes. I am not, oddly enough, a very judgmental person. I belong to the live and let live school of political thought, but sometimes things just go a bit too far.”
Bryant’s live and let live outlook is in part influenced by a recent health scare. In 2019, his husband Jared Cranney discovered an unusual mole on the back of his head following a new haircut. It turned out to be a stage three melanoma requiring urgent treatment. Bryant was told he had a 40 per cent chance of living a year and, in an emotional moment, says: “I think if my treatment had been delayed by another three months [his course finished just before the Covid pandemic], I wouldn’t be here … I was lucky”. Throughout it all, Bryant took only one day off work, to have surgery. He says: “The weirdest thing about it was that I would normally keep my medical history to myself but I had absolutely no choice because I had this great big thing stapled to the back of my head!”
But in Parliament he found nothing but support. “We all know who has had cancer,” he jokes grimly – and then gets teary-eyed: “When [former Northern Ireland secretary] James Brokenshire died [of lung cancer in 2021], you do have a bit of survivor’s guilt. I always think of it as empty chairs at empty tables from Les Miserables because we were all willing James to live.” Bryant is now well, on his fifth Covid jab and three and a half years through the 10 years of recovery scans but he is “angry” about the government’s handling of the NHS. He says: “Morale is at an all-time low; we’re not training enough people for the future; and there are more GPs leaving every year now than are joining, so it’s going to be worse in five years’ time than it is now. That just makes me angry.”
I think if my treatment had been delayed by another three months, I wouldn’t be here
He is also frustrated by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s comment that gay football fans should respect Qatar’s laws relating to homosexuality during the World Cup: “I wish he would just say that Qatar needs to respect gay fans. The Qataris haven’t budged an inch.” Bryant once went to the middle eastern country on a trip paid for by Qatar – and now regrets it: “I wish I hadn’t gone,” he says: “My fear is they’re using the World Cup to wash their reputation and I don’t think we should participate in that.”
Bryant met Cranney while canvassing with LGBT Labour in the gay bars of Soho. They made history as the first civil partners to have their ceremony in Parliament, following an intervention by then-prime minister Gordon Brown. “I had a very funny phone call from Gordon one day,” Bryant says. “He rang saying: ‘I’ve got to appear at the Liaison Committee tomorrow and I am going to announce that we’re going to change the law so you and Jared can get married in Parliament.’” As Parliament’s chapel is Anglican, and the Church does not marry same-sex partners, that was ruled out, so Parliament was instead registered as a venue for civil partnerships. Bryant says: “Gordon sort of broke the logjam about this.”
When he was younger Bryant had both girlfriends and boyfriends, but discovered he was gay after “my girlfriend told me so … I knew by the time I was ordained, actually”. He was ordained into the Church of England aged 24 in High Wycombe, Bucks, and went on to be youth chaplain for the Diocese of Peterborough. “I thought: I don’t want to end up being a bitter twisted, gin and lace priest, hating the Church, which won’t let me have a partner, so I should get out before I’m 30,” he adds.
Bryant was drawn to the Church after receiving support during what was a difficult, and peripatetic childhood. The family had spells in Cardiff and Spain, then under the authoritarian dictatorship of Francisco Franco (“My dad quite liked Franco, which is why we lived in Spain”), before the family settled in Cheltenham, Glos.
“When everything was going very badly wrong at home – mum was a terrible mess, dad left, I was running the household – all the people who were supportive of me were Christians,” he says. In his last year at Cheltenham College, he went to live with his school chaplain and his family. He describes his upbringing as “miserable” – when he was 13 his mother told him about her drinking problem; and throughout his teenage years he would find and dispose of bottles of alcohol, pouring them down the drain. It also happened to be a Conservative household.
During his first term at Oxford University, Bryant was in the Tory Reform Group, “the more lefties”, he says, and was even elected to the Oxford Conservative Association committee. His political outlook changed when he went to Latin America as part of his theological training for the Church. He came back a self-proclaimed socialist having gone from “from being a sort of natural Tory to believing in social justice and everybody having a chance in life”.
It so happens that Bryant was at the university at the same time as Johnson. “He is a bit younger than me, although it is difficult to believe,” he jokes. Bryant is a fervent critic: “He [Johnson] was exactly the same then as he is now: a fraud. My first memory of seeing him was in the toilets at the Oxford Union and he arrived with his hair perfectly well groomed. Just before he was about to go in to make a speech he came into the bathroom just to mess up his hair. It is all fake.”
Although Bryant has not always been supportive of his party’s leaders, he is “a fan” of Keir Starmer. He says: “I hope that the nation has got over the idea that having a clown and a buffoon as prime minister is very entertaining and therefore good for the economy. Having a serious grown up in charge will be a good thing.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.