Chris Bryant: If you're confused about the facts and can't admit you're wrong – that's ministerialitis

A Political Life

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Ministerialitis is a sadly common affliction, though some – especially those with a strong sense of self-belief – are more prone to it than others.

The first symptom is normally a simple refusal to listen to the other side of the argument, but when the condition becomes chronic, a minister starts to edit, twist or, indeed, conjure statistics to suit his argument. Soon it's government by factoid – presenting things that look like facts, sound like facts, but on close analysis are nothing of the sort.

The prime exponents of this at the moment are Chris Grayling and Damian Green, who, last week, gave a couple of newspapers a (suspiciously round) figure for the number of immigrants to the UK who are claiming benefits. Leave aside for a moment the fact that they at no point stated whether these people arrived in this country last week, last year or as children in the 1940s (nor, indeed, pointed out that more than half are British citizens), my complaint is that Grayling and Green were so determined to demonise "immigrants" (and the Labour Party) that they issued the press release before they published the statistics. No wonder they got a fierce rebuke from Sir Michael Scholar, the head of UK Statistics, who said the statistics were "highly vulnerable to misinterpretation".

There is an even more virulent form of the affliction, though only a rare few catch it – prime ministerialitis. The symptoms are easy to detect – a tendency to believe one's own rhetoric, a refusal to back down and a faint air of the messianic. Sadly, I have to report, David Cameron (right) is clearly now in its thrall.

The evidence? For a start, his casual disregard for facts. Cameron says gun crime and violent crime almost doubled under the last government. Untrue, as Sir Michael Scholar has pointed out. This week, the PM came up with: "The real shame is there are so many millions of children who live in households where nobody works and indeed that number doubled under the last government." Quite a stinging attack on Labour, if true. Except it isn't. The figure actually fell from 2,235,000 in 1997 to 1,863,000 in 2010.

That's not all. When Anne McGuire challenged him on cutting benefits for disabled children (and on having got his figures wrong last time she asked him about it), he spat out that she was "just plain wrong". Yet again, he was mistaken and Anne was right; they will lose £27 a week.

And then he claimed that there are more people in work today than were at the last election. Wrong again. In fact, the number has fallen by 26,000.

My problem with this is less that the PM gets facts wrong. Nobody expects omniscience (although an inaccuracy repeated over and again looks like lying). My worry is about the rattiness with which he refuses to be corrected – the sense of "How dare you contradict me?". That's the sign of tertiary prime ministerialitis.

Commons faces a busy schedule

With all the talk about RBS's remuneration of Stephen Hester and his manifestly unjust near £1m bonus, I note that my colleague John Mann is tabling a new Bill next Tuesday to limit ministerial pay to no more than 25 per cent more than that of a standard MP. Since MPs now get £65,738, that would mean a minister getting no more than £82,172.50 – quite a drop for a cabinet minister, now on £134,565, and just a tad more than a select committee chair on £80,320.

No, minister, don't worry; it's not going to become law. John is publishing another 19 Bills that day, including ones to move Defra to Bristol, BIS to Sheffield and DCMS to Manchester, to reduce the number of police forces in England to 10, to close all British military bases in Germany and to cut the Lords to 300 unpaid members. He's even planning to set a maximum level for public-sector employees and to prohibit bonuses for any public employee paying higher rate tax.

Considering the Government has had virtually no serious business of late, maybe they should let us debate these.

Rules are rules, so watch your timing

Meet Andrew Stunell, the Lib Dem MP for Hazel Grove and Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Nice enough chap, no doubt. Has the look of an accountant about him, though he's actually an architect by training and an OBE-rewarded councillor by profession. That's all by the by, though. For on Tuesday he was steering (well, that's a bit of an exaggeration) the Government's Local Government Finance Bill through the Commons and decided, after he had voted against a Labour amendment, to pop into the gents' in the Aye lobby to fill the carafe of water that sits by the Despatch Box to slake ministerial thirst.

Why he chose to do so just as the Speaker shouted "lock the doors", as he is obliged to do after eight minutes, I know not, but it meant that the minister was trapped and in danger of having to vote against his own Bill as the rules state that everyone has to leave the lobby before the result can be announced. Indeed, the whip (in this case the Labour whip) stands at the door and declares to the tellers "all out". Just sometimes members have been known to tarry in the lobby toilets so as to waste Commons time – but then the Sergeant at Arms is sent in to whisk laggards out with his/her sword.

Sadly, on this occasion the Tory minister Simon Burns shouted through the locked door to his ministerial colleague that he should stay put as they couldn't force him to vote and the Labour whip, my colleague Mark Tami, was so gentle-hearted that he declared "all out" while poor old Stunell was still miserably cowering in the toilets. The devil in me wishes Tami had held firm and waited for Stunell to vote.

twitter@ChrisBryantMP

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