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Chris Bryant’s important new book starts with an uncomfortable question: “Is this the worst Parliament in history?” By the end of this book, there is little doubt in the mind of the reader.
This Parliament may not have been the worst of all time. But you have to go back to the 18th Century to find one as corrupt, immoral and venal.
As chair of the Commons’ Committee of Standards and Privileges, Chris Bryant carries authority. And he has assembled his evidence with care and intellectual precision.
Bryant shows that the 2019 generation of MPs are uniquely low calibre. Twenty-two have been sanctioned for unacceptable conduct since the general election – the highest number in recorded history.
Offences range from sexual harassment, disorderly conduct, watching porn, interfering in the course of justice, bullying and misleading the House (disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson).
This list does not include one unnamed Tory MP who has been banned from the Commons while under investigation by the police, and three recent MPs convicted of serious crimes.
Bryant then produces a long list of ministers obliged to resign following breaches of the Ministerial Code.
It tends not to count against them. The most notorious case involves Home Secretary Suella Braverman, reappointed by Rishi Sunak less than a week after leaving the Government.
Bryant shows that the Ministerial Code, which in theory guarantees high standards in government, can be spoken of in the past tense. Successive prime ministers have failed to apply it.
He cites a Transparency International report of December 2022 identifying 40 potential breaches of the Code which had never even been investigated “either because there was no advisor in post, or because they were blocked by the Prime Minister, or because the advisor did not think there was enough evidence”.
Meanwhile, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is toothless. It has done nothing to impede 170 ministers and senior officials taking roles related to their previous policy briefs in the last six years.
Bryant proves that all seven Nolan principles of public life – selflessness, integrity, openness, accountability, honesty, objectivity and leadership – are routinely flouted. Nepotism has become an obtrusive feature in modern British government – with the Johnson family a prime example.
Bryant shows how this debasement of public standards works in practice. The ‘levelling up’ initiative, supposed to help poorer communities, has been turned into a Tory slush fund.
COVID became an opportunity for Conservative donors and cronies to make a fortune through the award of PPE contracts.
The sale of peerages has long been a racket.
Lying has been normalised by successive Tory prime ministers, including the current incumbent Rishi Sunak.
Bryant quotes Boris Johnson saying “I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country and I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt”. He says that he’s not convinced by Johnson’s protestation, and it’s hard not to agree.
Bryant quotes Sussex university professor Robert Barrington to the effect that, thanks to the dismantlement of traditional checks on executive power, “the UK has taken the first steps on a journey towards state capture which ends in being a mid-ranking, politically unstable, semi-democracy” in which “government is for the purpose of self-perpetuation and not the public interest”.
So far so convincing. However this book has grave weaknesses as well as great strengths.
As a serving MP, Chris Bryant is understandably mindful not to upset important figures whose ill-will can damage his career.
He has nothing bad to say about Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, despite the undeniable fact that he has presided over this mess. I am afraid his repeated failure to stand up for high standards will be judged with a mixture of despair and contempt by historians. If a football team gets relegated, the manager takes much of the blame. Bryant lets him off.
He fails to mention Tony Blair’s systematic deceit about Iraq, assault on parliamentary standards, abuse of the honours system and politicisation of the civil service – all of which opened the way for the Tory lies and corruption of the last few years.
And there’s not a whiff of criticism of Keir Starmer, the Labour Leader.
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This is all too understandable because, as a Labour MP, Chris Bryant would face the sack if he laid into his boss.
For far too long, Starmer failed to confront Johnson’s lies. That’s not as surprising as it sounds because Starmer himself deployed a long list of lies and false promises during his campaign to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader. With the important exception of one outstanding speech about Boris Johnson’s lies about ‘Partygate’, Starmer tends to leave integrity issues to his Deputy, Angela Rayner. Bryant’s failure to address the Starmer problem means the book comes over as partisan.
Bryant also does not give enough attention to one key factor on the collapse of standards in the Commons in recent years: the failure of the media to hold bent ministers to account. All too often client journalists rally to the support of wrongdoers, while attacking those who uphold standards.
This is nevertheless a brave and important book by a formidable parliamentarian. Chris Bryant has performed a public service.
The book concludes with a series of proposals which would clean-up public life. The most important of these suggestions is a Parliamentary Standards Reform Bill which would amalgamate the alphabet soup of codes and regulatory bodies into a single, independent national commission.
If Keir Starmer has any sense he will incorporate Chris Bryant’s proposals into Labour’s manifesto ahead of the general election. If he fails to take this urgent step, he will send out the terrible message that Labour in government will seek to emulate the moral squalor of Rishi Sunak’s discredited and rotten government.
‘Code of Conduct: Why We Need to Fix Parliament – and How to Do It’ by Chris Bryant is published by Bloomsbury