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Commons confidential: Brexit fumbles, Boris mumbles – and what really happened with the whips

 “Would any of you, ahem, chaps like to, ahem, contribute to a new royal yacht?” 

Word reaches my lugs of Boris Johnson sinking like a stone at a gathering of corporate titans. The Foreign Secretary (and yes, I, too, still need to read the professional nincompoop’s title twice to grasp he is indeed so) was launched at the Tory party conference to woo chief executives of multinationals nervous about what Brexit means for their bonuses.

After paying £2,500 plus £1,000 for dinner, the business charabanc to Birmingham not unreasonably expected prized insights in return. My snout whispered that Johnson provided zero and was dead in the water the moment he opened his mouth to beg on behalf of the Queen.

“Now I, ahem, have you all in a, ahem, room,” mumbled BoJo, “would any of you, ahem, chaps like to, ahem, contribute to a new royal yacht?” The suppressed gurgling at the back suggested No.

Not that David Davis and Liam Fox, Athos and Porthos to Johnson’s Aramis in Theresa May’s Three Brexiteers, or Priti Patel, impressed the lured high-rollers. I’m told the Brexit, Trade and Aid Secretaries struggled to explain their roles and overlapped sufficiently at an invitation-only gathering to create confusion in the minds of the ordinary boss class. The running commentary on the government remains negative in corporate Britain.

Jeremy Corbyn’s praetorian guard fingered Pat McFadden as the brains behind the attempted coup and Conor McGinn as the brawn. The latter’s resignation from the whips’ office pre-empted the sack after, as foretold in this column, Nick Brown replaced Rosie Winterton as chief thumbscrewer. Reshuffling Jon Ashworth to Health was presented as compensation for losing his seat on the NEC, yet it’s the Leicester MP’s wife, Emilie Oldknow, that the Corbynistas are really after. With Iain McNicol’s position as general secretary looking a tad stronger, Corbynistas are targeting Oldknow, who is seen as a militant moderate. The plan is to make Momentum’s Sam Tarry Labour campaign chief. Every civil war has its winners and losers.

Tory number crunchers are adding up to a row. The funereal Philip Hammond, a chancellor whose idea of a good night out is studying statistics, is frustrating Tory comrades – including the Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who was an accountant before swapping figures for politics. “There are two kinds of accountant: the can do and the won’t do,” she was overheard intoning. “Philip’s certainly a won’t do.”

Her private verdict should spice up departmental spending negotiations.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor(politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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