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Who will be Keir Starmer’s chief of staff?

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery and Keir Starmer’s copy of the Tony Blair playbook is so well-thumbed that it looks like he’s building retro Labour. This time he is hunting a chief of staff to reprise the role of Jonathan Powell, who led Labour’s preparations for government before 1997. Big poll leads and Rishi Sunak’s collapsing Tories may prove attractive to ambitious young high-fliers.

Commons rumours that former mandarins Tom Scholar and Olly Robbins have been approached are hot air, sniffed my source. Scholar, brutally purged at the Treasury as Kwasi Kamikaze crashed the economy, would require approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which the Tory peer Eric Pickles could deny. During Brexit negotiations, Nick Clegg ribbed Robbins, a former No 10 chief Europe adviser, by calling him “one of ours”.

[See also: To ward off election hubris, Labour raises the spectre of Neil Kinnock in 1992]

Labour must first win the election, which is expected in autumn next year. Many Conservative MPs fear their party has already lost. One disconsolate Tory, boycotting a £70-a-head glitzy centenary of the 1922 Committee in west London’s Hurlingham Club, moaned that his lot risked resembling the quaffing pigs on hind legs at the end of Animal Farm. (The ’22 wasn’t actually formed until 1923, hence the centenary.) “Nothing is as it appears,” observed the backbencher, “except scandals, which are too real.”

Publishing his annual tax returns if he became prime minister was a rare commitment by Nadhim Zahawi in his abortive Tory leadership bid last summer, recalled a snout. Protesting at the time he was the victim of a smear campaign, the sacked cabinet minister’s pledge was for the future not the past. Now we know why.

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Camel-penis eater Matt Hancock took his mother to the Good Morning Britain studio where he was grilled, flambéed, diced, boiled and mashed by Susanna Reid and pals over that £320,000 jungle jaunt. Cheaper than taking her for lunch or dinner, I suppose.

Remember Jo Swinson? The briefest leader in Lib Dem history, losing the post (and her seat) after six months in 2019, has resurfaced as director of the philanthropic organisation Partners for a New Economy. My informant, who was slipped her business card, said Swinson desires a low profile. You can’t blame her. Jo who?

It’s back to the old days for Andrew Murray, Unite’s chief of staff and a former Jeremy Corbyn aide. He’s returning to the Westminster lobby with the Morning Star, a beat he covered for the paper as a cub reporter in the 1970s. (In 1979, Murray was the first journalist on the scene after Tory MP Airey Neave was assassinated by the Irish republican paramilitary group the INLA.) The Labour left will be thrilled; Keir Starmer far less so.

[See also: Will Boris Johnson’s million-pound donation fund a political comeback?]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con