Engaging, thoughtful and funny: Kathryn Stone reviews 'Code of Conduct'
January 2022: 'Partygate' protestor, London | Image by: Lucy North / Alamy Stock Photo
A powerful examination of parliamentary conduct and the eroding of standards, Chris Bryant’s book begins on 3 November 2021 – a day I will always remember
Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies.
Chris Bryant has great expectations. Actually, he doesn’t. His engaging, thoughtful, powerful and funny book is just arguing for what are every day, run-of-the-mill, par-for-the-course, ordinary expectations. And his easy, warm, inclusive, engaging and honest writing style mirrors the man.
But there is something rotten in the state of Westminster. Bryant believes we live in dangerous times (he uses the word 19 times) and things deteriorated execrably under Boris Johnson. Indeed we are processing more shit than even Parliament’s pneumatic sewage ejector (which so impresses Bryant) could ever hope to cope with – let alone sort. For example he cites the questionable links between party donors, cronies and lobbyists to honours, public appointments and PPE contracts.
Bryant loves to reference himself on a run, in a gym or at a sports centre. But he also puts his cultural exercise routine through its paces: we have kings, queens and Ru-Paul; turn around and there’s Bonnie Tyler, a capitalised ABBA, three spoons of Sugababes, a measure of Shakespeare, the Book of Daniel (thankfully, not Kawczynski), and – crucially – a twist of Dickens.
Politics is a human construct, and politicians are human. All of us are flawed in some way. Bryant utterly gets that. But surely as a starter for 10, the one thing we want from our politicians is integrity? He argues that this alone should stump up MPs “good enough”? Who wouldn’t vote for that?
There is something rotten in the state of Westminster
The book begins in 2021. On the third of November. A day I will always remember. A day when “all hell broke loose”. And it did. Boris Johnson (whose sole legacy Bryant suggests succinctly will be “a disregard for the truth”) and his nodding big-dogs conspired to rip up the entire standards system to save their mate Owen Paterson – despite a proven “case of egregious paid advocacy”.
Hell. Broke. Loose. I and my exceptional and dedicated team were basically abolished. Kwasi Kwarteng said I should be considering my position. Three words summed up what they think and had thought of me: “How dare you?”
Social media exploded. I was the most vindictive, vile, incompetent, power-crazed, woke-type, virtue-signalling, nose-stud wearing, Tory-hating, flipping social worker non-entity.
It was the worst of times – a majority government doing whatever it wanted. Which is Bryant’s fundamental point. The cheese and wine of privilege. But it was also the best of times: “conflated” decisions were reversed, and standards suddenly became front and centre.
But did they?
Each Paterson accusation (“kangaroo court”, “witch-hunt”) was subsequently trundled out by John Bercow and Boris Johnson in defence of themselves. Entitlement on show.
Bryant’s “disinfectant of sunlight” suggestions make sense. Yes, he’s not the first to question second jobs for MPs. Or bite that ACOBA has no teeth. And it’s shameful that ministers have an easier accountability than MPs.
But in essence: we should have a parliament that constantly questions. And gets the truth.
Parliament is a Bleak House.
Bryant’s recommendations can soften these Hard Times.
Kathryn Stone OBE was parliamentary commissioner for standards from January 2018 until December 2022
Code of Conduct: Why We Need to Fix Parliament – and How to Do It
By: Chris Bryant
Published by Bloomsbury on 17 August
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