Chris Bryant: Bradford shows that despite Cameron's failings, Labour still has a mountain to climb

A Political Life


Just about everyone has got it wrong in politics this week. For a start, all this obsession with class is way off the mark. Neither the Budget, with its cut in the 50p top rate of tax and the pasty tax and granny tax, nor the revelation that the Tory Treasurer offered private dinners with the Prime Minister for £250,000, nor even horsegate is really about class, however much we Brits are obsessed with it.

Yes, all these unforced errors are dangerous for the Government, because each scandal has so easily gained a name, because ridicule is always more wounding than argument and because they suggest in graphic terms that the Government is out of touch.

But the far bigger problem for Cameron is that people used to think of him as a change-maker. He didn't quite have a Clause Four moment, like Tony Blair, but he changed the face, at least, of the Tory party. There were a few more women and ethnic minority MPs, a little less banging on about Europe. So when he became Prime Minister, people expected great things of him and, oddly, the very fact that he did a deal with the Lib Dems added to that sense of a man who might break the mould. But the past fortnight has shown a government of "political business as usual".

When you add doling out dodgy dinner invites and inept petrol panic to the growing list of unfulfilled promises – on immigration, on the NHS, on Gary McKinnon, on rising unemployment – it feels as if Cameron's ability to change things is rapidly silting up.

Mind you, we in Labour still have a mountain to climb if we are to prove we can be the change-makers. A week of 10-point leads does not a general election victory make – as Bradford West made so abundantly clear – and, for all our achievements in office, the legacy of the Iraq war and the global economic crisis of 2008 are still with us.

Let the bishops go to their flocks

There's a lot of moaning in the Lords, and it's not just the threat of the Lords Reform Bill that is causing coronetted coronaries. There's also the matter of their lordships' recess as there is a threat that they will rise early before the new session. This is going down badly as peers lose £300 every day the House is not sitting. This includes the bishops, even though they are paid full-time stipends by the Church of England and are provided with rent-free palaces, cars and chauffeurs (or a chaplain).

Last October, for instance, bishops claimed £15,300 in attendance allowance, including the Bishop of Chester's £2,700, Leicester's £2,250 and most extraordinarily, London's £900. Which brings me to the joint committee on Lords reform, which has voted to keep 12 of the 26 bishops. I just don't get it. How can a national legislature have the representatives of just one church from only one of the four nations?

Wouldn't it be kinder to release them from their rochet and chimere duties so that they can tend to their dioceses? After all, the Catholic Church seems to make a far more effective political splash than the CofE and its clergy are not allowed to sit in a parliament.

Cross-channel influences

I know I have already complained about the hubristic reference to Westminster as "the mother of all parliaments". On Monday I hosted a lunch for a group of French lobbyists, who were here to learn how we do things. They were fascinated by the discussion about Peter Cruddas, but were kind enough to accept that Britain had invented lobbying.

Indeed, despite the famous precision of the French language, there is no French word for lobbying, which may explain why Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris, complained so bitterly after losing the Olympics to London that it was because Tony Blair had outrageously and against all rules of nature done "le lobby". Bizarrely, though, the very elegant woman who introduced me at lunch said it was a delight to be "ici, chez la maison mère de tous les parlements". So now even the French think Westminster is the "mother house of all parliaments".

There is, as I pointed out, an irony here. For the first permanent home for the Commons was St Stephen's Chapel, which was built quite explicitly on the model of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, long and narrow, with seats facing inwards. So in reality, the mother house of all parliaments is the Sainte Chapelle.

My lunch guests, by the way, seemed convinced that Nicolas Sarkozy will lose the French elections, but were far more upset about losing his wife Carla Bruni from the political scene. I merely note that her second album was called No Promises.

The Lord speaks in mysterious ways

Palm Sunday, 1988. We used to start the service 100 yards up the road in the parish hall before following a donkey down to church while singing "All glory, laud and honour". The elderly and infirm, though, would wait for us in the church, which was so vast that we used radio mikes.

Because we had an actor (Douglas Hodge) reciting the Easter narrative that year, many more had turned up than usual and it took an eternity just to get out of the church hall.

Indeed, we had exhausted all the verses and were on a constant loop. At which point the vicar turned to me and said, "How long is this ***king procession going to last?" Unfortunately he didn't realise that the radio mike was on and he was broadcast down to the church where several dozen members of the congregation thought that the Lord had spoken. One burst into inconsolable giggles.

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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