Chris Bryant: A tribute to the fallen is one of the few things that will bring order to the House

A Political Life
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The Independent Online

On Tuesday 6 December, Sapper Elijah Bond of 35 Engineer Regiment was hit by an improvised explosive device in Helmand province in Afghanistan. He was immediately flown by helicopter to Camp Bastion and then back to the UK, but despite the best efforts of the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, he died last Thursday. He leaves behind a proud family. He was 24.

Since I rarely catch TV or radio news, I would have missed Sapper Bond's death if it hadn't been for Prime Minister's Questions. It has become our very modern tradition that PMQs start with a tribute to any member of our Armed Forces who has died in action since the last time the PM was on his feet. Since the election, tributes have been paid to 91 servicemen at 36 out of 50 PMQs.

It is always the most sobering of moments. Even the wildest heckling banshees on the whips' bench know to listen in silence, largely because we take a special responsibility for every British serviceman or woman who dies. We send them to war; we provision and equip them; we direct how long they stay. We know, in the words of Shakespeare's Private Williams to the incognito Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, that "if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place'".

Some MPs know the Armed Forces well. The recent additions to the Commons, Labour MP Dan Jarvis and the Tory Rory Stewart, both served in the Army. Others, myself included, have done the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, in which an MP spends 30 days a year in uniform in one of the services, enabling politicians to see things in the rough and ready. That's why many of us think it profoundly unfair that the Government announced a freeze in pay for privates and corporals without even a moment of consultation.

Above all, as my colleague Jamie Reed said, I hope for the day when we no longer need to start the session with military tributes.

Why don't gossips spread good news?

Keeping abreast of what is going on in your patch is a vital part of being an MP, but rarely as simple as it sounds. For a start, there is the power of rumour and malicious gossip. So, locally, there are rumours that the accident and emergency unit is closing, that the gynaecology ward is being mothballed, that the dermatology clinic is to stop. All completely and utterly untrue. Indeed, the most interesting real development in the Rhondda's NHS has been the launch of a new Lucentis service for into-the-eyeball injections that can dramatically improve sight for people with wet macular degeneration. It's a service that is now being replicated in Moorfields. Yet good news like that rarely gets passed along the grapevine.

Dog bites Caerphilly MP

And then there's the problem of getting the wrong end of the stick. Wayne David, the MP for Caerphilly, got caught out when a journalist rang to ask him about a new report that suggested that Caerphilly was the "dogging capital of South Wales". Unfortunately, Wayne didn't quite hear the journalist properly and thought that she was referring to the local problem of stray dogs and how the council had been involving local people in catching them. "I've been thinking long and hard about this," he said, before adding, "and I think everybody in my constituency should be doing it."

That's not where it has ended, though, as colleagues have augmented the tale with apocryphal details. In one such account, it was a live radio encounter and Wayne, presuming that the journalist was talking about local pedigree winners at Crufts, said, "We have been doing some very good breeding locally. I'm very proud of it." Sadly, this is completely untrue.

Waking the dead with cold calls

Having spent a few hours out with Seema Malhotra in Feltham and Heston, I'm delighted that she was elected with a healthy majority on Thursday night, replacing my friend, the warm-hearted Alan Keen, who died of cancer. By-elections are curious events that bring out the psephological anoraks. My strongest memory is of assisting in the November 1991 by-election in Kincardine and Deeside, an area not generally thought of as a Labour heartland (although we did quite well when we went to canvass the staff at Balmoral, the incumbent not being allowed to vote). As it rained almost incessantly and horizontally throughout the six-week period, we had taken to telephone canvassing in a big way, for which I had developed a rather curious Dr Finlay's Casebook accent. "Hello, I'm calling on behalf of Malcolm Savage, the Labour candidate," I started on one occasion. "Might I speak to Mrs McLeod?" "No," came a gruff male reply. "Is she there?" "Aye." "Is there a reason I might not speak to her?" "I'm the undertaker and I'm laying her out."

Rev's venal saintliness rings true

Next Thursday is the final episode of Rev, a crackingly insightful BBC sitcom set in an inner-city parish, with the gloriously perplexed Tom Hollander as the Rev Adam Smallbone. Much of it is accurate. Colin, for instance, who keeps on calling the vicar "vicarage" and his wife "Mrs Vicarage".

When I was a curate, we had a member of the congregation who could never quite master the concept of the Rector and always called him "rectum". One thing isn't quite right, though. The splendidly spooky Archdeacon in Rev wears a pectoral cross, something I have only ever seen on a bishop. As for that strange mixture of faith and doubt, venality and saintliness that permeates Smallbone's quasi-prayers? Spot on.