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12 December 2014

Commons Confidential: Ben boosts flowerpot men

Your weekly installment of Westminster gossip.  

By Kevin Maguire

Bahrain, where the Royal Navy is opening its first base east of Suez since 1971, isn’t the only Gulf autocracy Her Majesty’s Government is cuddling up to. Vast oil and gas reserves fuelling a hefty military budget buy the United Arab Emirates strategic clout. The seven-state confederation, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a willing participant in the disastrous “war on terror” and Britain looks the other way when human rights are abused in a former protectorate where trade unions are banned. A snout from the Middle East whispered that a UAE intelligence official attended Cobra meetings discussing the rise of the so-called Islamic State. I’m sure it was an oversight his presence wasn’t gazetted in official briefings. Anyway, the Qataris found out and they aren’t happy.

As a reporter who has knocked on his share of doors, I go dewy-eyed at incidents like this: a Daily Mail hack was soaked, accidentally, I’m sure, doorstepping the brother of the Twitter Labour MP Emily Thornberry. Red Van Ben – he used to drive red construction vans in the US – popped his head out of a first-floor window and said he’d be down right after watering his window boxes. It never rains but it pours in the Thornberry household.

The billionaire peer Michael Ashcroft may have changed his mind and started funding the Conservative Party again after a £50,000 gift was registered from Anne Street Partners, a company linked to the Tory tycoon, but he remains anxious to maintain a public distance from David Cameron. I am told Ashcroft rings journalists who describe him as a “former Tory donor” to ask to be described as a pollster. Scurrilous scribblers wonder at idle moments if the Pollfather, whose surveys of marginal seats are generally encouraging for Labour, would secretly enjoy seeing Dave, his Tory adversary, fail in May 2015.

A report in the Independent on Sunday insisting Tony Blair sees Chuka Umunna as his heir reminded me that at a recent Tate Britain power bash hosted by the City spinner Roland Rudd, the Labour Party’s business voice was the first guest sought out by Peter Mandelson. My informant with the champagne flute muttered that the Prince of Darkness would’ve crowned Umunna there and then, but settled for a long chat instead. It must be serious when Mandy ignores wealthier figures in a room.

Readers of this column learned months ago that Alex Salmond was to stand in Gordon as the Tartan Terror gambles on a return to Westminster to enjoy the bright lights of London. The SNP MPs are going about with fixed grins. One grumbles he’s started reading the racing pages to have something to talk about with a former first minister who never likes playing second fiddle.

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

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