Affairs of Church and state

Parliament debates marriage, theology and Nadhim Zahawi’s taxes


Andrew Selous marched through Portcullis House on Tuesday clutching a folder. “Good luck!” a colleague said. Selous nodded. He would need luck, and possibly something stronger. He was off to defend the Church of England to Parliament.

No one is ever happy

There are jobs that sound trickier. That morning Chris Philp, last seen celebrating how well Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget was going, had been sent out to defend the government over Nadhim Zahawi’s taxes. Having told us last week that Zahawi had answered everything about his taxes, Rishi Sunak on Monday realised that he hadn’t.

“There are some significant questions to answer,” Philp told the BBC, though he didn’t say what these questions were. Perhaps that’s one of the questions.

The questions were, Philp explained, the result of answers that Zahawi had given on Saturday. This is the problem with answering questions: no one is ever happy. That’s why Zahawi spent so long getting his lawyers to threaten anyone who asked them. “The only way of fully understanding what’s going on,” Philp said, “is to have an investigation.” The prime minister could, of course, just phone his party chairman and ask him. But perhaps he fears this, too, would just lead to more questions.

“The tax affairs were represented,” Philp said with extreme care, “as being in order.” Even on the radio, you could hear that his mouth was dry, his tongue sticking and forcing him to pause to swallow.

Such mysteries are sometimes the province of the Almighty

Sunak, he explained, was committed to integrity. “Questions have been asked, and instead of ignoring it or brushing it under the carpet, he has quickly got on and launched an independent investigation.” Well, up to a point. Sunak made a pretty good fist of ignoring it and brushing it under the carpet. Sometimes, though, the carpet simply isn’t big enough.

“We all believe in this country that someone is innocent until proven guilty,” Philp said. And apparently after they’ve paid a large penalty to HMRC, too.

They moved onto the appointment of the man facilitating Boris Johnson’s secret lifestyle loan as chair of the BBC. “You’d have to ask Boris Johnson that question,” Philp said, gulping desperately. So many questions, all of them unanswerable.

Such mysteries are sometimes the province of the Almighty, which brings us back to Selous. He is a thoughtful MP, a man determined to do the right thing. A fellow journalist once offered to buy him lunch and found themselves asked to pay for a bowl of soup and a piece of fruit from the Commons canteen. I would bet Nadhim Zahawi’s HMRC fine that Selous has never arranged a secret loan guarantee from a foreign millionaire.

On most days, Selous is a backbench Tory, but he has another role. He’s the Second Church Estates Commissioner, which means that he has to answer questions about the Church of England in the Commons. The Church, unable to agree a position, has tried to keep everyone happy and ended up satisfying no one. It was now Selous’s job to explain this to MPs who seemed frustrated that the Church couldn’t simply read the opinion polling and change its position.

“The Church of England needs to wake up”

It was a session conducted with the care of a family reunion where everyone has things they want to say, but no one wants to have a fight. There weren’t many people in the chamber, and the balance of those who spoke was firmly in favour of the Church going much further. “There’s a hypocrisy that will bless the individuals but not the relationship,” Sir Chris Bryant said. Wes Streeting described how as a young gay man, he’d felt forced to leave the Church. Those who felt it had gone too far kept silent or spoke in code. In the middle was Selous, required to set out the church’s fudged position, anxious to express sympathy and love to those who felt aggrieved.

“Different views on these matters are held with great integrity,” he went on. “As a church, it is welcome that we are in a position where many can say: ‘I totally disagree with you. And I love you dearly as you are my brother or sister in Christ.’ That is a model we should try to emulate in our own parliament.” Up in the press gallery, we weren’t holding our breath for that approach to become widespread.

Parliaments and governments, Selous said, in his slow gentle way, shouldn’t be legislating on theology. Not everyone agreed. “This House will not put up with being held up!” Sir Peter Bottomley thundered. “The Church of England needs to wake up.”

Afterwards, Bryant headed over to the Standards Committee, to discuss how and whether MPs accused of sex offences should be prevented from coming into Parliament. “I’m hoping,” he told the witnesses, “that you have the answer to this question, because we’re not entirely sure that we have.” Some questions, clearly, are harder than others.

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