Politics split wide open

Chris Bryant delights in the Labour frontbencher’s earthy account of life in the parliamentary realm

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Honesty always sounds easier than it is, especially when it comes to autobiographies. So what is striking about this semi-biographical book is how hard Jess Phillips tries to be honest. She’s honest about MPs’ expenses, about international travel, about working with Tories, about the limits of an MP’s powers. And every time you think she’s about to get too pious or self-righteous, she corrects herself. That’s partly because she detests the narcissism of self-righteousness that has too often infected the left. She explains: “If I refused to work with Tories on anything then I would only be doing a service to my ego, which frankly does not need any more servicing.”

That doesn’t prevent her from excoriating those she does not rate. Gavin Williamson, for instance, is as “an arse who only cares about himself and how he can move up the ladder” and she tells an important salutary story about the convicted sex offender and former MP Charlie Elphicke lecturing her on the rule of law. She is thoroughly cross-party in her fury, too, denouncing the people in the Labour Party who “up until recently, for almost all my time in parliament, thought that winning an argument or just knowing you were right was enough”.

Above all, she’s adamant that power matters and her mission is to explain how power works so that anyone with a heart can pitch in, pitch up and change the world. She weaves the bare necessities of parliamentary politics – private members’ bills, advice surgeries, party politics, election counts, public bill committees, division lobbies – into an infectious mix of jokes, anecdotes, autobiography and serious political commentary. 

The overwhelming sense is of a woman impatient for justice (especially for women who have suffered abuse) and distrustful of arrogance, entitlement and any other brand of bullshit. But, she as readily admits while launching yet another Exocet at an infuriating government delay tactic or ill-considered policy, that “it is simply not good for my health to be as annoyed as I am on a near daily basis”.

She knows that managing one’s own ego in politics isn’t easy. On the one hand you don’t want MPs to be so thick-skinned that they are insensitive to the world around them, but at the same time, you have to have skin thick enough to bear the slings and arrows. Shrinking violets won’t butter any parsnips. You have to use your ego, not deny it. She has a whole chapter on “speaking out or showing off?”, which is the clearest explanation that I have ever read of the quandary a self-aware MP faces every day.

Which is precisely why this book is so refreshing. It’s completely straight about some of the things the public and their self-appointed guardians, the press, complain about. Phillips patiently explains why MPs need staff if the thousands of emails, letters and desperate constituency cases are going to be dealt with – and how infuriating it is when people presume that the whole of an MP’s staffing budget goes straight into the MP’s pocket. She laughs at the common idea that when she buys a steak slice at Greggs she can claim it on expenses. She explains how MPs’ international travel rarely feels like a jolly but happily admits that “travelling as an MP is the single most bourgeois thing I have ever done and I can see how this could turn anyone into a massive diva”.

Incidentally, she tells a story about the Chinese government trying to honey-trap an MP by repeatedly sending a prostitute round to his hotel room in Beijing but failing to detect that he was gay. I had this same experience on a Foreign Affairs Select Committee visit to China a couple of years ago, except that they had worked out that I was gay and it was a male prostitute who stalked me all day, albeit equally unsuccessfully.

One other joy. She loves a footnote – and some of these are the best bits in the book. In one she comments on the phrase “life is too short to peel a mushroom” by asking “who would ever peel a mushroom?” Well, Jess, I peel mushrooms. Not button or closed cap ones, obviously, but portobello certainly.

The book ends with the words “that palace belongs to you”, and it will have served its vital purpose if more people who might never previously have thought that politics had anything to do with them realise that the doors have been opened and they’re allowed in.

Chris Bryant is the MP for Rhondda and serves as chair of the Committee on Standards and the Committee of Privileges

18th November 2021