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Westminster parties engulfed by a cost-of-conference crisis

Your weekly dose of gossip from the corridors of power.

By Kevin Maguire

Rishi Sunak’s election guessing game is already creating havoc for conference season. Parties are wrestling with how much expense and organisational energy to invest in shindigs that could be cancelled if the PM schedules Pollageddon in October or early November. The Conservatives are ploughing ahead for Birmingham to keep Sunak’s options open. Labour has banked £1.5m from a Glasto-style sale of Liverpool tickets to businesses, and wants to keep the cash.

Tighter-budgeted Lib Dems aren’t thinking only about money. The word is that party president Mark Pack and spin chief Olly Grender favour pulling the plug now or reducing conference to a weekend as a precaution. They fear the party’s sandals-with-socks wing may embarrass Ed Davey by calling for the end of the monarchy, arming Trident subs with dud missiles, banning goldfish at funfairs or levying a jewellery tax. All of which have been proposed in the past.

Reviving an enfeebled NHS strapped into a financial straitjacket would be a Herculean challenge for an incoming UK Labour government. The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, scotches periodic rumours in Westminster that he’s itching for a job swap with Bridget Phillipson at education. But he acknowledged the scale of the awaiting career danger when disclosing Singaporean health minister Ong Ye Kung’s wise counsel on a visit to the city state. “He advised me,” recalled Streeting, “to be reshuffled before the general election.” Nye Bevan wanted the sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar to reverberate around the Palace of Westminster. Streeting may require earplugs if the likes of King George Hospital – which serves his Ilford North constituency – don’t improve rapidly.

Sunak Airways isn’t like other airlines. For starters, there is no early folding away of tables and buckling up before landing. On the No 10 mini-break to Poland and Germany a PM who regularly has his head in the clouds had to be reminded to take his seat moments before touchdown.

Ahead of the local elections, Conservative Campaign HQ let mayoral candidates know that it would find them fresh roles in the public sector should any lose their high-profile contests, I’m told by a snout. The hope is the defeated will be less likely to call for Sunak’s scalp, while filling quangos with Tories could keep the blue flame burning during a red terror. Spoils of war go to the vanquished.

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Two prominent right-wing biographers are pitted against each other in the Garrick Club’s battle over admitting women members. For is Simon Heffer (Thomas Carlyle, Enoch Powell) and against Tom Bower (Boris Johnson, royals). Will the struggle write a fresh chapter in the institution’s history or see it stuck on the same page?

[See also: Labour’s former rugby player Khalid Mahmood high-tackles a heckler]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March