Chris Bryant: You’ve got to have Corbynistas and Blairites fighting for the same cause
The shadow Commons leader talks Labour pains, comparisons with Julian Clary - and awkward moments with his old foe James Blunt.
“I’m still here.” The first words that you see on entering Chris Bryant’s office in the House of Commons belong to the singer Eartha Kitt, or rather a framed copy of a 1989 Kitt album.
A present from Bryant’s staff after he emerged unscathed - contrary to predictions – from Jeremy Corbyn’s new year reshuffle, it’s a light hearted statement but a statement all the same. The shadow leader of the Commons remains one of the more unlikely travellers in, or survivors of, the Corbyn revolution.
Another piece of artwork on his office wall suggests why. A cartoon, to celebrate his crowning as MP of the Year at the Welsh Political Awards, shows Bryant armed with a bag of ‘Consensual Compost’ as he tends to a Labour rose alongside Jeremy Corbyn and his bag of ‘Socialist Compost’.
“My take, for what it’s worth…” says Bryant of Labour’s growing pains under Corbyn, “…is in all this ooohing and aaahing about the Labour Party, should we be more left wing, more right wing, should the Blairites bugger off, should the Corbynistas bugger off, is Momentum destroying the party… it is a fundamental political reality that we have a first-past-the-post system and that means if we want to win a general election you have got have the Corbyinistas and the Blairites fighting for the same cause: a Labour victory. The Labour Party is a coalition, an alliance. So is the Tory Party, it’s just the Tory Party is a bit more rigorous about making sure that everybody understands that…”
Where Bryant sits in the Labour coalition is intriguing. First elected to Parliament in 2001 as part of Tony Blair’s second landslide, in 2006 he co-authored a letter urging Blair to step down. Under Gordon Brown he rose to a ministerial position at the Foreign Office, but back in Opposition he fell well short of the votes required amongst his colleagues to make the shadow cabinet. That may have been a blessing, with Bryant instead enjoying a high profile stint on the culture select committee which saw him at the forefront of the battle with News International during the phone hacking scandal. He’s back in the shadow cabinet, but where is he in the Labour Party? “I’m a Bryantista. I don’t know. I’m a Rosie-ista,” he laughs, name-checking Labour’s chief whip Rosie Winterton. “I believe in winning elections. I don’t believe in being pure for the sake of purity.”
Bryant preaches the importance of unity, but as that letter to Blair showed he’s more than capable of picking a fight. As quick to fire off a barbed tweet as he is with a parliamentary put down, in recent years Bryant has fallen out with both the singer James Blunt – who labelled the then shadow arts minister a “classist gimp” after Bryant suggested his music career had benefited from a wealthy background - and the boxer Tyson Fury.
Blunt and Bryant have since made up - just. He recalls: “I went to party before Christmas and this chap came up to me and said ‘hello’. And I said, ‘I’m really sorry… do I know you?’ And he said ‘I’m James Blunt!’ He’s tiny! And then I blushed because I got really guilty because he must have thought I was doing that deliberately, and I wasn’t. I’m just really bad at recognising faces. You know their music…unfortunately."
Despite the potentially disastrous faux pas, Bryant insists the discussion was civil. “It was fine, his wife was about to give birth so he wasn’t drinking. We chatted very pleasantly. I offered to debate with him sometime about it somewhere. He was up for it, but it’s never happened…”
Bryant says his argument, that in Britain a privileged upbringing helps a career in the arts, still stands.
“As I was only telling David Dimbleby the other day, you can’t just have a few families dominating the whole system,” he explains, smiling. “One of things I really wanted to change was the way people get into the arts because normally they are expected to do a six month free apprenticeship or internship, so that means everybody is either called Annabel or goes to Annabel’s.”
So presumably he hated the recent BBC series The Night Manager, whose three male stars – Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddlestone and Tom Hollander – were all products of the same Oxford prep school? “I know…” he begins, before giving in. “It was great though! It was a brilliant show. But it has got to change.”
As for Fury, Bryant, who is gay and was briefly a schoolboy boxer, challenged the World Heavyweight Champion to a showdown on the canvas following the boxer’s controversial comments on homosexuality. The offer has not been taken up. “He’s run away, tail between his legs…”
With no chance to box with Fury or debate with Blunt, Bryant is busy taking on his opponents in the House of Commons chamber. He insists that he is the model of good behaviour - “I can’t abide PMQs. I very rarely heckle now. On the whole I sit there in silence and listen” - but he clearly relishes his weekly “sparring match” with Commons leader Chris Grayling, a man who he says “never looks very happy….he did the same joke five weeks in a row and it wasn’t very funny the first time.”
Their weekly spat has had Quentin Letts, the Mail’s sketch writer, praising Bryant for performing like “Julian Clary playing Buttons at the Birmingham Hippodrome”, and Bryant seems pleased with the comparison.
“He’s funny, Quentin is. I have used him on my leaflets. I’m like Julian Clary… I love Julian Clary. I think it’s a massive compliment.”
The Clary comparison was prompted by Bryant’s comment, following George Osborne’s announcement of the introduction of a Sugar Tax, that ‘finally, the Chancellor has realised the dangers of Coke’ - a joke which, for legal reasons, won’t be explained here.
He thinks “George Osborne would have laughed at that joke himself” and insists he didn’t offer it to Jeremy Corbyn first. “No. I don’t know how that got out.” In fact, he admits, the joke wasn't even his. “I think I nicked it from somebody else…I heard somebody behind say it. Sometimes that’s what you have to do on Thursday mornings. All you’ve got is words and your own personality, so what you’re trying to do is to make an issue turn a corner and sometimes you can do that with humour, sometimes with savage satire, sometimes by being utterly factual and dull.”
Talking of which, where does he rank Jeremy Corbyn’s rather sober approach to PMQs?
“Certainly with constituents, Jeremy’s style of doing things has a greater reach than some of the wit,” Bryant insists. “William Hague won every week and it didn’t get him a single vote.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s reach and ability to win votes will shortly be put to the test, first with a series of local and devolved elections and then with June’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Bryant won’t predict what would constitute a successful night on 5 May: “Of course not! I may be slightly ginger but I am not stupid”. So how about predicting whether Corbyn will face a post-election leadership challenge, as some reports have hinted at? “I’m not Mystic Meg. You know, predicting the future…I’m really bad at it. I honestly have no idea” he replies. That doesn’t exactly warn off any would-be plotters, does it? “The point is Jeremy got elected by the members and the membership, so far as I can see, hasn’t changed dramatically” Bryant replies. “So that’s where I lie.”
As for the referendum, Bryant is “passionately ardent” about being pro-EU while Corbyn used a speech last week to explain his journey from sceptic to begrudging supporter of the EU. “The combination will make a difference between winning the referendum and losing”, Bryant insists. I’m not worried that some of my constituents say ‘I don’t know what Jeremy really thinks’ because I think Jeremy’s process of change is a really important part of convincing some people who are, in the proper sense of the word, sceptical that it is in our best interest to stay in. We are all in the same place.”
When asked how critical it is that Corbyn puts in a concerted campaigning effort, his reply is telling. “Let me put it this way. I’m not putting David Cameron’s leaflets out in the Rhondda and the voters in the Rhondda are just as important as the voters in Chelsea to winning this.”
Back in Westminster, it’s a case of politics as usual. The day before we meet Corbyn had suggested, following the Panama Papers leak and the prime minister’s contorted attempts to explain his late father’s offshore business interests, that all MPs, and perhaps anyone involved in public life, should publish their tax returns. Bryant isn’t convinced.
“Or special advisers? Or the whole country? I don’t know… It is a difficult argument. It’s important that you have very transparent system, but the system of registration is pretty transparent. There are things we could do to strengthen it. There’s more we could do but whether everybody needs to publish their tax returns, I don’t know.”
And even if a blanket publication of Parliamentary tax returns shows that Conservative MPs are less able to claim that they are really all in together, Bryant warns his party off political point-scoring.
“Cameron has done everything he can: wear horrible shorts and shirts when he goes on holiday, adopt an estuarine accent, travel on EasyJet, make sure someone takes a selfie of him on the flight and all the rest of it to show that he was one of the rest of us. This slightly blows it apart though I’m not sure it’s a great look for politicians to go ‘nah.. you’re richer than me.’”
While the pressure has eased on the prime minister, Bryant believes that Cameron’s authority has been damaged by the tax row. “I’ve always thought a prime minster has nine lives and he’s getting very close to the ninth. We all know Cameron’s days are numbered, not necessarily in the double digits but it’s not going to be many months.”
And he is equally unconvinced with Sajid Javid after the business secretary found himself on a business trip, and a holiday, in Australia as news broke that Tata Steel was pulling out of its operations at Port Talbot. For Bryant, many of whose constituents are employed at the steel works there, the focus must be on stabilising the business, buying time, and preserving as many jobs as possible, but for Javid, he says, questions remain.
“I have always thought that he was just an empty vessel and empty vessels clang loudest but are the least use. When I was at the Foreign Office you were expressly not allowed to take a visit which ended up with a holiday when a member of the family was there. It all seems a bit odd to me.”
Rumbling on in the background is another example of the Labour Party making life difficult for itself, with accusations of anti-Semitism in local candidates seeing Corbyn face pressure to act. Bryant welcomes the appointment of Lady Royall, a Labour peer, to investigate the allegations but he insists that Labour ‘has just got to keep our guard up.” So has Corbyn done enough? “It’s got to be absolutely clear from the very top to the very bottom in the Labour Party that we abhor racism of any kind, any religious prejudice and that includes anti-Semitism”, Bryant replies, before calling for the party to go further than mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan’s call for a retraining in what anti-Semitism is.
“It’s not just about anti-Semitism. We probably all need to be trained on what racism is because casual racism is an easy… we all have our prejudices, our stereotypes, and recognising we all have that is better than pretending that we don’t and the same is true of anti-Semitism.”
An MP for 15 years now, Chris Bryant has survived despite run-ins with the press, taking on Murdoch, and fall outs with his colleagues.
He says he goes “through lots of emotions about being a politician, being an MP” and has found his battles with the media both “grinding and sometimes deeply, deeply hurtful.” So is he a better politician now, in his mid-50s, than when he started? “There is a balancing act. You don’t want to have skin that is so thin that the moment anyone shouts ‘boo’ to you, you shrivel up into a corner. But at the same time if your skin is as thick as a rhinoceros you’re not going to be attuned to what your constituents or the wider public think. I find that balancing act quite difficult. But I enjoy my present role. I’m passionate about parliament.”
It’s a refreshingly candid reply. As is his assessment on the future of the Palace of Westminster. A member of the parliamentary committee looking at the building works required by the 19th century construction, on this occasion Bryant is firmly in the Leave camp. “There’s a real danger that we will do what we did in the 19th century, we’ll try and stay on site. We’ll delay it forever. We’ll spend twice as much money and end up messing it up, or we’ll do is what we did to the [Millennium] Dome which is endlessly playing around with it and making it an undeliverable and unsuccessful venture.”
The solution, he says, is to employ “some people who are just determined to see it through all the way to the moment of going out and the moment of coming back in.”
How long will MPs need to be away? “Six years. They say four. I think it will be six. We will need people who are going to bear down on that and be a good client rather than a bad dowager duchess messing around with the plans every second day.”
A third volume of his Parliamentary biography might be need to chart the story, but before then Bryant is busy researching a book on the aristocracy: “‘The History of the British Aristocracy - the Thieving Bastards’”… I haven’t cleared the title with the publisher yet”. The revelation that he writes a diary might also alert publishers. “I might just come across as really odious” he replies, smiling. “I think I’ll let my husband read them first and make a decision.”
Perhaps the diaries will reveal exactly what happened when he wrote to Blair and demand he leave. Given what happened next, with Blair resigning the following year, Gordon Brown leading Labour to electoral defeat, Ed Miliband doing the same, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn… does he regret that letter?
“No. It was the right thing to do. Tony should have never have said that he was going to go.”
Chris Bryant, on the other hand, has no intention of going anywhere, except, perhaps, leaving the Palace of Westminster with the rest of his colleagues. For now, as the song says, he’s very much still here.