Chris Bryant: the Labour former priest trying to clean up UK’s parliament
As the British government reels from allegations of sleaze, Chris Bryant, chair of the House of Commons standards committee, has become a pivotal figure in the operation to clean up parliament.
Bryant has confirmed the committee is considering whether to limit second jobs for MPs in its report later this month. It comes after prime minister Boris Johnson last week tried to overturn the standards system to protect one of his colleagues — only to reverse course within hours amid public outrage.
The Labour MP said his cross-party committee, made up of seven MPs and seven members of the public, held an emergency meeting on Tuesday. Among the “many ideas” it is considering is a 2018 recommendation from the Committee of Standards in Public Life — a separate independent body chaired by the former head of MI5 — that MPs should be banned from second jobs that involve lobbying.
Bryant, who last week compared Johnson’s intervention to “something they do in Russia”, said the incident had damaged the reputation of elected representatives.
“I hate the idea that people are getting the impression that all MPs are on the take or have their snouts in the trough,” he told the Financial Times. “It was really irresponsible of the government to do what it did last week; there are a lot of Tory MPs who are in despair.”
Johnson had tried rip up the entire standards system in an attempt to save Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister who was suspended from the Commons for 30 days over lobbying allegations. When Johnson abandoned his plan, Paterson resigned.
“Every MP who is here entered politics to change the world for the better. That doesn’t make them saints,” said Bryant, “but the public rightly takes an interest in MPs abusing privileged positions for financial interests.”
Bryant was elected in early 2020 to the job of chairing the standards committee, a post that always goes to an MP from the opposition party.
He is seen as a repository of knowledge about parliament’s sometimes arcane procedures. “He’s a modernist and a traditionalist, he’s a progressive politician but he loves history . . . [and] has a huge knowledge of parliament,” said Alison McGovern, a fellow Labour MP. She describes him as “deeply serious and a writer and thinker but also very generous and good fun”.
Mark Fletcher, a Conservative member of the standards committee, said: “He treats everyone on the committee with tremendous respect and makes sure everyone has a fair hearing.”
Bryant is a politician who is hard to pigeonhole. He was a priest and head of European affairs for the BBC before he entered politics. “I’ve careered from career to career,” he said, quoting a song from Follies, the Sondheim musical.
His five years in the church came to an end over his homosexuality. “There was an old line in the church which was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” he recollected. “In the inner-city clergy, there were guys who loved gin and lace but then the church made it more clear . . . ‘We don’t like homosexuality’ and it became very difficult for me.”
He entered a civil partnership with his partner Jared in the members’ dining room at parliament in 2010. Although he remains a Christian — he co-founded the Christian Socialist Movement — he remarked: “I don’t care about pie in the sky when you die, I believe in our lives today.”
Bryant was a member of the Conservative Association while studying at Oxford university, where he took a dim view of his fellow student Johnson. His political realignment came in Chile during the Pinochet years. In 1986 he attended the funeral of a young Chilean killed by the military and when tear gas was thrown by the police he noticed that one of the canisters said “Made In The UK”.
The switch from Conservative to Labour has been followed by other political swerves since he was elected as MP for Rhondda, a post-industrial seat in the Welsh Valleys, in 2001.
Bryant was an avid supporter of Tony Blair, yet he helped precipitate the former prime minister’s departure in 2007. He went on to work as Europe minister in the last year of Gordon Brown’s government. Later he served in the shadow cabinet under hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn only to resign as part of a wider protest in 2016.
A decade ago he became known as “the scourge of Murdoch” after pursuing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking by his News of the World newspaper. Bryant won a £30,000 settlement from News Group Newspapers after his own phone was hacked.
The 59-year-old is aware that his critics see him as a somewhat pious and self-regarding character. “But I don’t think I’m pious at all,” he said. “To quote RuPaul [the drag queen], if you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?”
Bryant, who also sits on the foreign affairs committee, has written books about Labour figures Stafford Cripps and Glenda Jackson and keeps a private diary that colleagues say could one day make fascinating reading.
He is currently trying to push through a bill that would compel the government to give greater support to people with “acquired brain injury”.
One Tory who has worked with Bryant described him as a “pretty fair-minded individual” who held a “difficult” job. “He has two sides of his personality that pull him in different directions. He has his religious background and wants to be fair — that’s a big part of his personality,” the MP said. “But there’s also an element of being mischievous and party political. Sometimes you see that pulling that in that opposite direction.”
Kevin Brennan, a fellow Welsh Labour MP, said Bryant “is genuinely concerned about standards in parliament, but not in a prissy way”, adding: “He is not some kind of witchfinder general; he wants to maintain the standards that the public expects us from us.”
Bryant predicted that the Commons would vote to reverse last week’s vote exonerating Paterson. “Common sense and decency has prevailed, or I presume it will on Monday evening,” he said.
As for his own political intentions, does Bryant want a return to the shadow cabinet? “My dream is to play Doctor Who,” he said enigmatically.