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Tireless Tory chair swaps hustings for hostelries

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Thirsty work, being chair of the Conservative Party. On 15 February – double by-election polling day – Richard “fighting for every vote” Holden popped into Kingswood for a photo before driving two and a half hours to Wellingborough for another picture. By 7pm, while forlorn bands of Tory activists still knocked on doors, he was back in Westminster. Holden was spotted by a snout first in the Old Star before moving to the Two Chairmen. That’s leading from the front by drowning your sorrows early.

Michael Gove’s continued life of luxury in One Carlton Gardens, the £25m central-London grace-and-favour mansion usually reserved for the foreign secretary, is fuelling resentment. When David Cameron moved in to the Foreign Office, he agreed that his Brexit nemesis could remain in the palatial pad – which Gove has occupied since November 2021 after splitting from his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine. While Cameron claims to be “happy” with the arrangement, bitter Tories ask darkly what scheming Gove might have on others to level himself up.

The Labour shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, finds herself confronting a taxing dilemma. In No 10, the Tory shadow chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is weighing up whether the actual chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, should unveil big tax cuts in next month’s Budget or hold some back for manifesto promises – after January’s National Insurance cut failed to produce a poll bounce. Reeves, considering a cut of her own, is playing a waiting game.

[See also: The David Cameron effect]

Keir Starmer may be grappling with a rebellion over Gaza, but he’s enjoying a walk in the park compared with Sunak’s party problems. One of the pork-pie plotters of Boris Johnson’s premiership reckons 20 Tory MPs have now advised the 1922 Committee chair, Graham Brady, that they have no confidence in the PM. In Johnson’s day, the magic number to trigger a confidence vote was 54. A rebel quipped that by-election defeats will be bringing that number down rapidly.

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Boris Johnson is still awaiting Sunak’s call summoning him back to save the Tories. Meanwhile, the Cincinnatus of Somerset seems to be finding ploughing on with his memoirs hard going. It was over a year ago that HarperCollins paid a reported £510,000 for Clownfall, or Buffoon, Interrupted, or Cheat, Pray, Gove – or whatever the musings to emerge from Johnson’s bucolic hideaway will eventually be titled.

Stalking Sunak on the hard right, Reform UK’s property tycoon Richard Tice is fond of boasting that his is a real party of the workers. A Tory snout recalls observing Tice lurking at Fortnum & Mason’s caviar bar. Nothing’s too expensive for the workers, eh?

[See also: Scottish nationalism finds a new home in the House of Lairds]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation