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22 September 2021

Commons Confidential: Kamikaze Keir

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

It’s back to the future for Keir Starmer as he bids to revive Labour’s electoral college for leadership elections, triggering another uncivil war. The inwards turn, after Starmer had preached that next week’s party conference in Brighton must look outwards, took both opponents and a dwindling band of supporters by surprise. The counter-coup against Corbynites was predictably denounced as a “grubby stitch-up” by John McDonnell, yet perhaps Starmer should be more concerned about unease among sympathisers. One prominent MP, who speaks regularly with the leader, opined that the move smacked of Starmer viewing himself as a Kinnock-like reformer rather than a Blair-like winner. Disillusioned centrists quelled talk of leadership challenges during the winter and spring because they couldn’t guarantee one of them would succeed a toppled Starmer. Impose the change, struggle in the polls, and look like a loser, and he could be Kamikaze Keir.

The decision by Unite’s syndicalist, newly elected general secretary Sharon Graham to boycott Brighton in favour of touring picket lines around the country will strengthen the influence of Tony Woodhouse, the chair of the union’s executive council. The Scouse lorry driver split with many comrades in Unite’s (dis)United left faction, including Len McCluskey, to back Graham against runner-up Steve Turner. Woodhouse is now a powerhouse, appointed by Graham to lead Unite’s Labour delegation while she shows solidarity with workers. Jack Jones said of the fractious Labour-union marriage: “Murder yes, divorce never.” How about living apart?

Downing Street is purring that Boris Johnson enjoyed grandstanding in the US, confident that back home he’s quietly clipped rival Rishi Sunak’s wings. The Chancellor’s Treasury team was cleared out in the reshuffle except for Lord “truffles” Agnew – a job share with the Cabinet Office – and PPS Claire Coutinho. Johnson fanboy Simon Clarke is now Chief Secretary to the Treasury (and the Middlesbrough South MP can easily pop into the Treasury’s Darlington outpost). 

[see also: “Schemers never prosper”: inside Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle]

Levelling down minister Michael Gove’s appointment to housing, however, is already leaving transferred civil servants feeling neglected in the department’s Wolverhampton outpost. The site was selected by sacked predecessor Robert Jenrick and, by remarkable coincidence, was on the route home to his Herefordshire country pile. Gove’s constituency is in Surrey, the opposite direction. The permanent secretary could always check out local nightclubs to tempt Gove to the West Midlands.

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Thérèse Coffey, a Work and Pensions Secretary unaware of how the benefits system operates, raised eyebrows by slipping into a Westminster reception for Team GB’s victorious Paralympians, as her benefit cuts hurt the disabled. My snout whispered that few, if any, recognised the minister. Clueless Coffey’s brass neck matches that of sports minister Nigel Huddleston. The political gymnast gushed about Channel 4’s coverage of the Tokyo games, skipping over the government’s plan to privatise the hailed broadcaster.

Rob Oxley, the spinner for culture wars secretary Nadine Dorries, may require a spin doctor of his own, or make that a medical doctor. His unforgiving new boss won’t be amused when she discovers that nine years ago, while campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Oxley tried to get her deselected for abandoning her constituency to pursue a “Z-list career on a popular, but ultimately, trivial TV programme thousands of miles away”, swapping the SW1 jungle for I’m a Celebrity down under. Dorries once threatened a Mirror colleague of mine who upset her that she would “nail your balls to the floor… using your own front teeth” if their paths crossed. That’s why The Ox might need a doc with professional qualifications.

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[see also: What Liz Truss learned from Jeremy Corbyn]