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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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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.

“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.

It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:


Applause, cheers, and even some tears.

But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.