Chris Bryant: An MP can be gay, straight or asexual. Nobody cares, and that's how it should be

A Political Life

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The Independent Online

Insinnuendo, that nudge-nudge wink-wink way of insinuating that something naughty is afoot, with a smidgeon of innuendo is the bane of political life.

It makes the little hairs in my ears go all atwitch. You know how it works. A paper can't prove that someone is having an affair, so they run a story about adultery on the same page as a photo of the celebrity concerned. Or they have heard on the (nearly always inaccurate) rumour mill that someone is gay, so they wait until they can run an accidentally camp-looking photo. Or they use a deliberately ambiguous headline. Or commission a suggestive cartoon. All plausibly deniable in court. And all so blasted cowardly. If you've got something to say, say it. Don't insinuate; don't dissimulate; don't hide behind titter words and double entendre. Publish and be damned.

Sadly, this snigger tendency has been in evidence in some parts of the press this week in relation to Liam Fox and it completely missed the point. Of course Fox had to go, in my view, because while serving as Defence Secretary he had been running his own independent foreign policy and he'd broken the ministerial code of conduct. But for heaven's sake, let's grow up and stop this Carry On up the Division Bell way of doing politics.

Besides, who on earth cares whether someone is gay any more? I remember one old friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, was terrified when he was burgled in the Fifties (when the hideously homophobic Tory Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe was running a nasty anti-gay campaign), that the police would investigate him and his boyfriend for buggery rather than their intruder for burglary, as they only had one bedroom. But thank goodness those days are long gone.

Let's be clear. Two men can be close friends without being lovers. (Nobody ever seems to doubt this about women, incidentally.) Sexuality is far more complex than any headline can ever encompass and, barring criminality, it's nobody else's business. Nobody is going to succumb to blackmail over these matters today, so if someone wants to be open about their hetero, homo, omni, or even asexuality they should feel free to do so. But equally, if anyone wants to keep their home life private, that too should be their right. Ministers should be judged on the way they perform their job, no more, no less.

Indeed, in the 17th-century words of the great judge and MP, Sir Edward Coke, the "home of an Englishman is to him as his castle".

My right honourable friends

Talking of friendships, there was a curious moment when I was called following Liam Fox's statement about his dealings with Adam Werritty. I started off with what I thought was fairly obvious, that even a minister is entitled to have friends. To which several Tories shouted, "Which is more than you've got." At a moment like that you either ignore the heckling, in which case it doesn't get into Hansard, or you respond to it. In this case I pointed generally at the Tory benches and said, "You'd better watch out because you're one of mine." Not a great quip, but it passed muster while I got on to the rest of my question. Ten minutes later I received a note from the Hansard clerks asking to whom I was referring. Tory colleagues apparently thought it was Nick Boles or Desmond Swayne, and Chris Heaton-Harris actually claimed the title (which will now doubtless ruin his career). Hansard was confused so just wrote "interruption".

These days it's just soda water neat

On Thursday we debated banning MPs from tweeting or sending emails in the chamber and in committees. Some of the speeches were so full of harrumphs they felt crustier than anything ever baked by Hovis. Above all, it reminded me of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917, which, while the revolution swirled around them, debated whether to wear black or purple vestments for funerals. The thing is the horse has well and truly bolted. More than 200 MPs are now on Twitter and it's a great way of engaging with the wider world. There was another innovation in the debate. Because I referred to MPs by their Twitter names (@lucianaberger @MikeBakerMP and so on), I was able to break the rule that we can refer to one another only by our constituency, not by our personal name. I await the Speaker's reprimand.

There has been much disgruntled talk, ironically in the bars of the Commons, about former GP now MP Sarah Wollaston's comments on the "heavy drinking culture" in the Commons. My impression is that this is far less true than it was. Once, many MPs would have downed a few glasses at lunch. Now it is rare. Indeed, journalists look a bit disillusioned when you ask for a Diet Coke. It was different in the past, as the statues of Asquith, Disraeli and Churchill and busts of Wilson, Heath and Eden in the Members' Lobby attest. Asquith was known as "squiffy" supposedly because he never made a speech sober and always swayed at the Despatch Box. Disraeli, who may well have been bipolar, was renowned for his "magnificent feats of imbibing". Churchill would start the day with a whisky and soda, rarely had a meal without champagne and was often too sozzled to perform. Eden mixed amphetamines and barbiturates. Heath needed a half-bottle of champagne before every press conference in the 1966 election, and Wilson increasingly relied on brandy to get through the day. It's not surprising that in George Bernard Shaw's play the unscrupulous Andrew Undershaft opines that alcohol "enables parliament to do things at 11 at night that no sane person would do at 11 in the morning".

(It might, of course, be better if MPs didn't do things that sane people wouldn't do, but that's another matter.) One thing might restrict consumption, though, changing the sitting hours which require MPs to hang around until votes that don't even start till 10pm on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Chris Bryant is a Labour MP