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23 September 2020

Commons Confidential: The Downing Street guppy

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster. 

By Kevin Maguire

With his authority draining away, down-in-the-dumps Boris Johnson is said by a family member to have been on the verge of quitting, and talked out of doing so by cabinet and Downing Street colleagues. The source is admittedly fourth-hand, but when everybody was named to me in the chain from the sibling onward, the explosive claim can’t be dismissed entirely. The Prime Minister’s candid sibling confided that the miserable occupant of Downing Street’s partner and mother of his sixth or seventh child spends a lot of time with her own mother. Cherie Blair described No 10 as living in a goldfish bowl. Boris Johnson’s a guppy swimming round and round, gasping for air and hoping a predator doesn’t gobble him up.

Downing Street has claimed Michael Gove is leakier than a sieve, accusing the Cabinet Office minister’s team of spreading private conversations. After Johnson chaired a pandemic mini-summit with Gove, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty on the virus lockdown, a No 10 official was ordered to brief selected journalists because, whispered my snout, “Gove was in the room and nothing stays secret for long when he’s about.” The informant grumbled that at least Sasha Swire put her name to betrayals.

Johnson was likened to a busker unable to sing properly by Labour peer Toby Harris. Perhaps it’s too early to get out the violins, but a PM with many strings to his bow in the past, a performer who liked to make music widely, politically plays second fiddle in high office. Speculation among Tory MPs about what’s distracting the PM includes fanciful suggestions. The Russian business doesn’t help. I’m referring to roubles funnelled into Tory coffers, obviously.

Rich boy Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out subsidy helped out most in the wealthiest areas, according to Treasury figures my eyes were directed to. Pubs, cafés and restaurants registered in solidly working-class Luton North claimed £25,000, which is the lowest discount in any constituency. The highest? The £6,058,000 billed from a true blue Cities of London and Westminster, home to some of the country’s most expensive eateries and loaded inhabitants. The official explanation is visitors boosted the capital claim. Sunak deepening inequality is traditional Tory values in a virus setting.

The word in Westminster is two lobby journalists auditioned for the role of chief propagandist in No 10’s White House-style televised daily briefings. The favourite remains the Chancellor’s chief spin doctor Allegra Stratton, who has TV experience from ITN and the BBC after a spell at the Guardian. Candidates were put through their paces in mock press conferences in Downing Street. Justifying the PM’s lies will be a tough gig. 

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