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29 September 2021

Commons Confidential: Why is Starmer still smiling?

Your dose of gossip from the Labour conference.

By Kevin Maguire

Sabotage accusations launched by Keir Starmer’s team after mild-mannered Andy McDonald’s resignation as shadow employment secretary in Brighton wrongly presume a degree of coordination on the Labour left. Three prominent and surprised members of the Socialist Campaign Group told yours truly that they heard their comrade had quit around the same time as the Labour leader found out. A fourth, informed shortly before the announcement, actually tried to talk the Middlesbrough MP into remaining in the shadow cabinet. The order from Starmer’s office for McDonald to argue against a £15 hourly minimum wage was the straw that broke the Teesside camel’s back after part of his brief was given to deputy leader Angela Rayner as a consolation for losing the party chairmanship. With the leadership subsequently shrugging its shoulders over £15 calls, McDonald’s walk-out owed more to indignation, confusion and cock-up than a disorganised left’s conspiracy.

The smile sported by Starmer after an uncomfortable Marr interview – scumgate, cervixes, public ownership – disturbed flabbergasted colleagues who wondered if he’d appeared on a different programme to the one they watched through fingers on the BBC. The leader didn’t look as if he was enjoying himself on the box yet afterwards told the show’s staff and personal entourage that he felt it went very well. Perhaps he’s learning from a certain Boris Johnson, who could fall into a cesspit and then insist to everybody that he’d come up smelling of roses.

Starmer’s predecessor, trainspotter Jeremy Corbyn, observed struggling with a ticket barrier at Brighton station, wasn’t the only awkward encounter endured by members of the ousted regime. Peter Mandelson, a Prince of Darkness disinterred to cast a renewed shadow over proceedings, was overheard taunting, “We’re back in control” at Seumas Milne. The former Corbyn comms chief is finishing a book, Firestorm, on a turbulent period. Milne’s deputy, James Schneider, sighed “if only” after MP Clive Lewis charged Corbyn’s group of Stalinism. Uncle Jezza’s indecision was final.

Hometown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle was seen by revellers heading down to the beach for a bracing late-night swim. Reports he went skinny-dipping were mercifully unconfirmed in the dark.

Brexit is fuelling petrol shortages yet chief leaver Johnson is determined to reward those who inflicted national self-harm. My snout whispered that the PM wants to put plastic patriot and vacuum salesman James Dyson in the House of Lords. The putative Lord Dyson of Singapore is reported to have moved back to the UK from the tax haven. Meanwhile, the word is that dumped Gavin Williamson is waiting until he’s Sir Gav with a consolation knighthood before launching revenge attacks on Johnson for reneging on a promise to give the former education secretary another cabinet job. Patronage rewards friends and delays enemies.

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SNP shenanigans continue, with party president Mike Russell set up to carry the can if 2023 comes and goes without an indy ref. He’s in charge of the campaign rather than protected Angus Robertson, constitution minister in the Scottish parliament and viewed as Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred successor. No referendum and poor Mike gets the blame and Angus has clean hands. Ill-feeling emerged in a sneery tweet by Russell apparently accusing Robinson of moonlighting by plugging a new book online. The SNP insisted the party president’s message – “Hmm – might be a breach of MSP code too. And legitimate for people to ask what he is doing in the day job” – was a heroic attempt to send Robertson examples of baseless criticisms he’d received over his own books and that one was posted by mistake. In other news, the Queen is a republican.