Rupa Huq MP
Rupa Huq MP

This article first appeared in the Guardian.

A government under potentially lethal fire and fearing for its very existence will do virtually anything to protect itself. That is the plight of this wretched government. It will contort reality, throw up flares and turn its face on decency – anything to save itself.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that through shadowy channels, via sycophantic media, Boris Johnson has made known his intention to further feed his “war on woke” by scuppering a perfectly sensible suggestion “to counter unconscious bias and/or underlying racism” in parliament. Last Thursday afternoon, when the report was debated in the Commons, the only MP openly discussing his difficulty with the proposed “respect” principle was, predictably, Jacob Rees-Mogg, always a willing combatant in the war on woke. But through judicious leaks to encouraging and enabling media, we see the government’s direction of travel.

The measure was suggested by the crossparty Commons standards select committee and would bring the mother of parliaments into line with the practices and expectations common in firms and institutions up and down the UK. Its adoption would send an important signal to those who have not already committed themselves to “anti-racism, inclusion and diversity” by showing leadership on the matter.

But the beleaguered prime minister desperately needs to shore up his support, so instead he and his supporters promise a stand against “politically correct restrictions”, according to a Whitehall source in the Telegraph. They reject calls for more anti-racism, inclusion and diversity and clothe it as a principled move to protect “free speech”. There is of course form for this in the Conservative party: last year, when unconscious bias training was made available at the Commons – a voluntary scheme requested by MPs themselves – several Tory MPs refused to take part and one, Ben Bradley, denounced it as “Orwellian” and “totally nonsensical”.

It begs the question: in attempting to shore up his position, would the prime minister and his allies be happy to tolerate disrespect, intolerance and the furtherance of racism?

It is also a misleading attempt at “virtue signalling” over free speech. The truth of the matter is that no single individual can unilaterally decide on Commons standards issues. They’re what’s known as “whole of the House” matters to be settled by 650 MPs, not prime ministerial decree. The “review of the code of conduct: proposals for consultation” is just that – nothing has been finalised, and the consultation closes on Thursday. The government hasn’t even responded yet. One wishes it would do so through the proper channels rather than anonymous briefings to distract from the real concerns people face in the shape of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

MP are already expected to observe principles set out in the parliamentary behaviour code – of respect, professionalism, understanding others’ perspectives, courtesy, and acceptance of responsibility. If they believe they are already abide by those principles, why would they worry about the expectation being made more transparent and specific?

The plan to undermine a decent attempt to make parliament an exemplar in terms of race and equality is yet another example of MPs setting themselves apart from the diverse communities they serve. This Johnson government, seeking any advantage in a time of crisis, cannot be expected to act in the best interests of the country, or even parliament. We MPs must rise to a higher responsibility.

Rupa Huq is the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton.

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