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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Catherine Bennett

Spare us devout MPs like Peter Bone. If we ever had faith in them, it is long gone

Conservative MP Peter Bone in Whitehall, London.
’No obscure backbencher’: Allegations of bullying against Conservative MP Peter Bone date back six years. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

‘I am a practising Christian,” Peter Bone has told the House of Commons, by way of a substitute for argument. For instance: “I am a Christian and I am against the redefinition of marriage”. (It followed, for Mr Bone, that same-sex marriage was “completely nuts”.)

As with disgraced TV evangelists, Bone’s direct line to grace added piquancy to the news, following the finding of parliament’s independent expert (IEP) panel, that this pious and respected friend of the Plymouth Brethren was, for at least some months of his parliamentary career, also a bully who persecuted a younger member of staff .

In evidence an investigator found “compelling, nuanced and plausible”, Bone, the MP for Wellingborough since 2005, was found, as part of a “wilful pattern of bullying”, to have struck a young staff member, ridiculed him, ostracised him, demanded massages and indecently exposed himself on a foreign fact-finding trip.

A strange punishment ritual, inventive even for the House of Commons, required Bone’s junior to sit “hands on lap”. Bone says the misconduct allegations are “false and untrue” and also from a short period “more than 10 years ago”.

If the scriptures do not – I know theologians will correct me if I’m wrong – specifically prohibit displaying your genitals to a young colleague in a confined space, the claimed gulf between public and private in the case of Bone is sizeable enough, even amid the now routine evictions of disgraced Tory MPs, to suggest that current perceptions of Westminster as a beacon of foulmouthed workplace squalor are, if anything, too trusting.

Boris Johnson was utterly predictable; Gavin Williamson signalled his skillset with a pet tarantula. But can we be sure that performatively devout MPs with a firm line on marriage have never, since it may have had no discernible impact on their prospects, required a co-worker to, say, massage them with the office door shut? We know from Jacob Rees-Mogg that ostentatiously Christian MPs may be unkinder than heathenish ones; Bone’s story indicates that, if reassurance on past behaviour is impossible, invocations of faith should become as redundant in Westminster as they would be in any other secular profession. True, the faintest awareness of religious scandals suggests the existence of parliament’s own Elmer Gantrys, but better late than never.

Even when not moralising, Bone was no obscure backbencher, like tractor porn man, or brazenly suspect like a number of swinish, greedy or lecherous colleagues, but until last week considered – certainly by Johnson, who promoted him, and Channel 5’s Jeremy Vine show, where he was a regular panellist – a highly acceptable parliamentary character with mad hair and comic patter to prove it.

Until his traditional views on marriage were demonstrated, by the Sun newspaper, to be decidedly flexible, Bone had impressed audiences with what was taken to be a disarming uxoriousness, with scores of references, not all of them crude, to what his wife, “Mrs Bone”, thought about political issues. David Cameron would respond with double entendres the House found hilarious. For instance: “I am fast coming to the view that Mrs Bone is, quite literally, insatiable.” Mrs Bone’s younger replacement, a fellow Brexit campaigner, has yet to become a rhetorical device, though she did, like her predecessor, find a place on Bone’s parliamentary payroll.

Still less appealingly, for many women, Bone was known for his opposition to abortion, which he voted against legalising in Northern Ireland, and for defending his friend Christopher Chope’s wrecking of an upskirting law.

But all this was outweighed, at least for susceptible broadcasters, by an array of staunch, old-school attributes encapsulated in his attachment to ties. When John Bercow, as speaker, made ties optional in the chamber Bone told the Today programme this made it look “like a county council”. “Every time you dumb down the traditions of parliament, I think it reduces the esteem of parliament.”

The immoderate strength of feeling may partly be explained by mutual loathing: Bercow’s own condemnation for bullying Bone subsequently described as his “comeuppance”. But perhaps, at last, they can be friends?

No one, anyway, given Bone’s preoccupation with esteem, can be more concerned that someone like himself should now be recommended by the IEP for a six-week suspension, possibly triggering another byelection, certainly reviving questions about the sort of workplace behaviour considered compatible with parliamentary advancement.

After the Bone report, Chris Bryant MP, who, in his book Code of Conduct, calls this the “worst parliament in history”, calculated that 24 MPs have faced at least a one-day suspension since the 2019 general election, and noted how “many MPs still excuse bad behaviour”. The same week, the independent complaints and grievance scheme focused in its latest report on Westminster’s unrestrained drinking culture.

“Alcohol,” it said, “was a frequent factor in incidents in bars on the parliamentary estate (leading to intimidating behaviour such as shouting and swearing).” Perhaps we should pay more attention when MPs like Bone, the tie-obsessive, say they don’t see the bars as a problem. Or like Bone, dismiss as ridiculous the idea that constituents care about the drunken misconduct of Chris Pincher, “an MP they’ve never heard about”.

But thanks to the BBC, ITN and other suckers for reactionaries they can characterise as larger than life – not forgetting our hero’s historic Mrs Bone jokes – constituents may well have heard of Bone. So they might indeed register that there were six years between his ex-staffer’s first bullying complaint (to Theresa May) and the astonishing parliamentary report, during which Bone, with the public ignorant of the misconduct claims, has visibly prospered. The investigation was already four years in when Johnson made him deputy leader of the Commons, and nearing completion when he appeared on Jeremy Vine, deploring “inappropriate” behaviour at GB News.

“The thing is – we know Peter”, a bemused Vine told viewers, when the allegations finally emerged. No, the thing is – we didn’t.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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