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19 August 2020

Commons Confidential: Paranoid androids

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster. 

By Ailbhe Rea

There is no love lost on the Conservative back benches for Gavin Williamson. Even before the crisis over exam results, the gaffe-prone Education Secretary was known by a slew of less-than-glowing nicknames, from “Private Pike”, after the hapless Dad’s Army character, to “Frank Spencer”, after the accident-prone protagonist of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. He has so many nicknames that senior Tories struggled to remember them all as the new fiasco unfolded. “Wasn’t there one relating to the spider?” a senior party figure joked, alluding to Williamson’s pet tarantula, Cronus. “I forget.”


One Conservative who gets top marks for her performance in the exams fiasco is the universities minister, Michelle Donelan. Conservative MPs have been quick to praise the young MP for Chippenham, who spent the weekend speaking to vice-chancellors and keeping Tory colleagues informed, while the Education Secretary was nowhere to be seen. Donelan decided to be a politician at the age of six and colleagues note that she addressed the Conservative Party Conference aged 15, a year younger than a certain William Hague once did. One to watch.


Most of Westminster is trying to take some holiday this August, ahead of what is set to be a gruelling few months when parliament returns in September. The Prime Minister has been camping in Scotland, Anneliese Dodds plans on visiting all four nations of the UK with her young children, Grant Shapps fatefully went to Spain, and Ed Davey took a break from the Liberal Democrat leadership race to feed chickens and visit ponies with his family in Dorset. He may have been outdone, however, by his leadership opponent, Layla Moran, who spent her holiday in a “treehouse dome” in Ceredigion, Wales. On her way back, she had her picture taken by “Ianto’s Shrine” in Cardiff, a memorial to a character from the Doctor Who spin-off show, Torchwood. The whole holiday was “very Lib Dem”, aides agree. With that salvo to Doctor Who fans, one aide joked that Moran is “shoring up the Lib Dem core vote”.

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Dominic Cummings compiled a reading list for government special advisers this summer, including his well-worn favourite, Superforecasting by Philip E Tetlock and Dan Gardner, and High Output Management by the American businessman Andrew Grove, who cheerfully advises that “only the paranoid survive”. Spads have been dutifully taking the tomes away on holiday. “Can confirm that they are great holiday reads!” insists a scrupulously loyal No 10 spad. “Genuinely very readable!” they add. “I would honestly recommend them!” Who said anything about being paranoid? 

Kevin Maguire is away