Writing from the Commons for the Daily Telegraph this week, though alluding to him, I went to tortuous lengths not to name the MP whom a Sunday newspaper had exposed as the subject of the latest ‘gay sex scandal’. Why should I have mentioned him in the first place? Because only the day after the Mail on Sunday had made him famous, he strolled into a committee’s proceedings as if nothing untoward had happened to him.
In my line of work, it was therefore impossible not to mention him. He did not say a word, but his presence distracted all of us. We were at the standing committee on the inter-governmental conference on the European Union’s proposed constitution. The Foreign Secretary Mr Jack Straw tried to win back our attention by mentioning, at the top of page 108 of a certain unread document, ‘article 3210’. But the only article we were thinking of was in the Mail on Sunday.
A photograph accompanied it. The MP had taken it of himself, in his bathroom mirror, naked except for pants. The paper said that the MP ‘ ‘a leading campaigner for gay rights’ ‘ had ‘sent the photo to a gay friend after meeting up through an Internet dating agency for homosexuals’. The ‘friend’ could not have been as friendly as all that, having presumably provided the Mail on Sunday with the photograph.
The paper accompanied it with quotations from emails which the MP, under a code name, had submitted for display on the agency’s website, their purpose being to seek assignations with the like-minded. The paper censored them by means of many asterisks. But many were, it said, ‘unprintable in a family newspaper’.
These ur-texts, being available from the website in question, soon circulated around the Palace of Westminster. The MP, it seemed, was keen on ***** with his partner’s ******, inter alia, and indeed inter much else besides.
Yet there he was ‘ at our committee. Here was a theme for me in the Daily Telegraph: something to do with bravado, or even courage; but best not mention him by name, I thought, though colleagues on other papers did. The following day, there he was again, seated in the front bench in the Commons below the gangway at Question Time. A colleague said that the previous evening the MP had been at the Sky television party.
The thought occurred that perhaps he wanted us to mention him. Perhaps, whatever else he is, he is also an exhibitionist. Journalists ostentatiously not naming him were politically incorrect. We were discriminating against exhibitionists. Surely there is an exhibitionist lobby. It would probably be called something like Outflout. Its spokesman would pronounce: ‘Such non-reporting of one of our community who has taken the trouble to be both an MP and someone who appears in his Y-fronts on a gay website is our society’s attempt to marginalise hibitionism as a valid lifestyle choice.’
By the time these words appear, his name will be known even to those ill-informed enough to confine their newspaper reading to the broadsheets. He is Mr Chris Bryant, aged 41, a former Church of England vicar, and indeed Tory, who is the Member for Rhondda.
The story has implications. Admittedly, it would be just as interesting or amusing if it did not. But the high-minded always feel better in talking about something like this if a broader issue can be established. By Tuesday, the broader issue had established itself. Should MPs advertise themselves in the way, and for the purpose, that Mr Bryant did? And if they should, if they want to, do the rest of us have the right to know that they are?
Mr Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail said that they should not, and that if they do, we should know. Orthodox liberal opinion did not know what to say. But the militant wing of politicised homosexuality said that Mr Bryant’s activities constituted a ‘private matter’. A spokesman for Mr Peter Tatchell’s organisation said so on Mr Richard Littlejohn’s nightly Sky television programme.
He appeared with my friend Mr Michael Brown, the former Conservative MP who is now a columnist on the Independent. He said that Mr Bryant had behaved ‘like a complete prat’; that higher standards were rightly expected of MPs in these matters than of the rest of us; and that if an MP takes photographs of himself for such a purpose, he is quite properly a subject for ridicule, and deserves all he gets. Mr Brown is himself homosexual. The Bryant affair was not, then, a gay versus straight conflict.
Instead, it was the bourgeoisie, straight or gay, versus Dionysus. The theme, that is, of much Western art and literature. Historically, in real life as well, though not always in art and literature, the bourgeoisie tended to win. Respectability ‘ often depicted as ‘hypocrisy’ ‘ overcame sensual abandon, though in the novels, plays and operas on the subject the latter always had the best lines and tunes.
But are we entering the age of Dionysus triumphant? Is there no Dionysiac activity which can drive someone out of public life? If Mr Bryant survives as MP for Rhondda, the answer to the first question would be yes and to the second, no. The Bryant issue would be decided, however, not in Dionysiac central London, but in the Rhondda. We of the press turned our attention there. Over the wires the opinion from the valleys reached us in London.
As so often, when we London decadents hear from outside our little world, we misunderstand things at first. Councillor Bob McDonald, of Cynon Taff Council in Mr Bryant’s constituency, was quoted as saying, ‘When I heard about this from my wife, I was disgusted.’ We mused: presumably he told her to stop doing whatever she had been doing with Mr Bryant. No: she apparently disapproved as much as did her husband. But were they typical of the talk in the Rhondda’s pubs and indeed chapels in the early 21st century?
‘Some London paper has found out about our MP. It’s not very pleasant, boyo.’
‘You mean, they’ve found out he used to be a Tory?’
What if the underwear, and the dark purpose of his photographing it, were not destroying him at all? The Cardiff Western Mail quoted Mr Brunker, the constituency Labour party secretary, as saying that he did not expect calls for an emergency meeting, and that Rhondda party members ‘fully support him in getting on with his job’. This could be a turning point. By nightfall on Tuesday, Mr Bryant had apologised ‘to the people of the Rhondda’.
Some probably retorted, ‘Too late. Once a Tory always a Tory.’ For, at the time of writing, there being no attempt at deselection, it seems that Dionysus now reigns even in the valleys.