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Chris Bryant: It makes lurid headlines, but drunken brawling is not a parliamentary malaise

A Political Life
  • @ChrisBryantMP

Following the shenanigans in the Strangers' Bar on Wednesday night, it seems that yet again Parliament hasn't exactly covered itself in glory.

In the kerfuffle, a Pugin window was smashed and a Labour whip and a Tory MP or two were allegedly punched. All pretty unseemly.

Some journalists have gone into overdrive about all this, describing the Strangers' Bar (so named, incidentally, because MPs can take people who are not Members there, though the MP has to pay) as "rowdy" and "notorious". But, to be honest, it's rather genteel. True, it gets crowded, especially during the winter months and when there's a late-night sitting. But once it's warm enough to step out on to the Terrace over the Thames, it's about as pleasant a place as you'll find to sip a glass of wine with a visiting constituent or down a pint of whatever is the guest ale of the week.

Indeed, in recent years, Parliament has become even more genteel. Journalists (who are banned from the Strangers') tell tales of boozy lunches with ministers who then swayed off to deliver their words of wisdom to an untelevised chamber. That's all gone. As I've said before, few MPs sip so much as a white wine spritzer at lunchtime now. Likewise, when I was first elected in 2001, the Sports and Social Bar was the place to go, especially on a Monday night when there would be a rather talented a capella sing-song. That, too, died (over some scandal involving a peer and a prostitute, but we'll draw a veil over that).

What is more, far from seeing partisan quarrels, the Strangers', rather like the MP-only smoking room (where, contrary to rumour, smoking is not allowed), is normally the scene for cross-party fraternisation. Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in Askelon, but many a Labour MP has actually bought a Tory a pint. And most Tory MPs I spoke to on Thursday were concerned about the Conservative MP Stuart Andrew and those who might have been at the sore end of my Labour colleague Eric Joyce's alleged lashing out. But they also worried about Eric himself.

So, for all the lurid headlines, Wednesday night was not a symptom of some great malaise at the heart of Parliament. Yes, the Commons sits crazy hours and MPs do like a drink, but this incident was an aberration.

Fear not, Murdoch, the truth will out

Tomorrow we get the ludicrously premature Sun on Sunday since Mr Murdoch isn't going to let ongoing police investigations, or the fact that he is still supposedly "draining the swamp" of News International, stop him from bringing forth another creature from the depths. This is happening so swiftly that it is difficult not to conclude that he always intended to strip out costs by ditching the old News of the World in favour of a seven-day Sun – but then that's classic Murdoch cynicism for you.

Incidentally, you may also be worrying that since Charlotte Church, left, (like me) has now settled her case, the full truth will not come out. Worry ye not. All the incriminating material that litigants have seen is going not only to the Leveson Inquiry but to the police as well, and it is in the criminal courts that we shall eventually discover the full truth.

There is one thing we have to pursue with vigour, though. We should never again allow one person, let alone someone who doesn't live or pay taxes here, to own such a large share of the national newspaper market plus the largest broadcaster in the land.

A bit too much Lenten sackcloth

One thing has always bemused me. The Gospel reading before the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday ("Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return") is always Matthew 6:1, which starts "beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them" and goes on to condemn ostentatious religiosity. Yet, every year, the faithful wander around with the charcoal smudges on their foreheads for the rest of the day.

There's a dark side to a 'Delilah' chorus

If I'm honest, I don't really know the first thing about rugby. Unlike my brother Rhodri, I was rubbish at it at school and used to hang around on the wing hoping the ball wouldn't come my way in case I dropped it, or miserably missed a tackle. And yet today I shall be playing for the Commons and Lords team against a Welsh Assembly side in a charity match for Bowel Cancer UK. This is madness, of course. I am 50. The last time we played this fixture, several lads from the Welsh Valleys seemed intent on doing lasting damage to me and I sported neatly matching cuts above each eyebrow. And the last time I played rugby, a hospital pass from the Tory MP Karl McCartney saw me in plaster for five weeks with a broken leg.

Afterwards, though, I'm off to the one truly tribal Welsh occasion of the year: England vs Wales. It's something to do with the fact that we think of English rugby as a bit namby pamby, a posh boys' game, as opposed to the full-blooded horny-handed Welsh version.

Not everything about Welsh rugby is good. It's a sad fact that the international weekends see a rise in incidents of domestic violence. In Cardiff alone, they reckon the figure rises by nearly 80 per cent on match days. So it's a desperate irony that at every Welsh match we all belt out the Tom Jones classic "Delilah", which ends with the jealous lover stabbing Delilah to death and saying "I'm sorry, I just couldn't take any more" as if that were excuse enough.