Chris Bryant has been Labour MP for Rhondda since 2001. He is chair of the committees on standards and privileges. He spoke out against the government’s attempt to save Owen Paterson from parliamentary sanction, and has led the initiative to resolve the issue of MPs’ second jobs.
A decade ago you were on the Observer’s end-of-year headline-makers list, along with Tom Watson and Louise Mensch, for your work on phone-hacking. They have both since resigned as MPs. Has the stress ever been such that you’ve thought about resigning yourself?
Yes, I have loads of times, not so much resigning in a huff as going to do something else. I remember back in 2004, having lunch with James Purnell and Siôn Simon. I was the one who wanted to go and they were “no, no, you must stay”. And they’re no longer MPs. I notice that perseverance is [the Cambridge Dictionary’s] word of the year.
Anything that is bad for politics is bad for Labour
How do you think the Owen Paterson story and the subsequent sleaze allegations have left MPs in the public estimation?
Well, polling always says that we’re just above pigeons and just below rats. But if you ask what people think of their local MP, it tends to be rather higher. We’ve had two MPs murdered in the past five years and I think a lot of people are conscious of how sour politics can be. Nearly everyone I meet in a social situation says: “Oh my God, I wouldn’t want your job.” I think there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in this, which is if we keep saying all MPs are rubbish, then eventually only rubbish people will apply to be MPs.
Where do you think the line should be drawn on this issue of second jobs?
I think the only issue that really matters is conflict of interest. And that was the problem [with Owen Paterson]. That he used his position as an MP to gain a benefit for the companies who were employing him. And that’s where I rest because nearly every other thing people have come up with, whether you do it from hours or pay or whatever, is virtually unenforceable. I mean, I write books. I’ve never had a single constituent complain about me writing books, not least because they’re all about parliament. And, of course, some MPs are ministers. Is that a second job or not? It’s really about whether it’s a conflict of interest.
We hear a lot about MPs not “breaking the rules”, but if an MP is spending more time and earning far more money in their nominal second job than in their first, isn’t that ethically wrong?
We’ve always had a set of principles in public life, they’ve been known since the 1990s as the Nolan principles, and one of them is selflessness. Of course, you have a right to a private life and some time off and work-life balance, but people expect you to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the business of being an MP. But what does that mean if you have childcare responsibilities or a parent with dementia? There are 650 ways of being an MP and the last thing I would want is identikit MPs.
At the moment, allegations of sleaze are focused on Tory MPs. If it is a Tory problem, is that good for Labour or bad for politics?
Anything that is bad for politics is bad for Labour. When I was a child, I thought if I was going to be a gay man I’d be lonely all my life and never be in a settled relationship. Politics has changed that. And, likewise, I’m fighting for [better care for those with] acquired brain injury, which affects 1.4 million people. You need the parliamentary democratic process to achieve those kinds of changes. If everybody says parliament is a waste of space, because it’s full of people with their snouts in the trough, that’s not going to encourage them to vote Labour. It’s just going to make people reject democratic politics.