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27 October 2021

Commons Confidential: Starmer gets snubbed by his own MPs

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Turned notoriously vain by clamouring crowds of adoring fan-boys and -girls, Oh Jeremy Corbyn behaved at times as if selfie-ism would propel him into Downing Street. Tens of thousands of phone photographs didn’t prove a winning strategy when Labour crashed to its worst Westminster result since 1935, so perhaps Keir Starmer shouldn’t be too upset about how few people want to be photographed with him – particularly his own party’s MPs. My snout whispered that fewer than 20 invitations were accepted to be snapped alongside Starmer during a drop-in day at the opposition leader’s lair. Corbyn’s fate may have proved the camera does lie if it’s used as a popularity monitor, but getting fewer than a score is the political equivalent of a gagging clause.

Human sieve Rishi Sunak’s Budget leaks, with daily multiple press releases spewed out by the Treasury since the weekend, might have Hugh Dalton turning in his grave. Clement Attlee’s first chancellor was sacked in 1947 for telling a reporter on his way to the Commons to deliver a budget that he’d put a penny on beer, nothing on fags and double the profits tax. The Star, a now-defunct London evening newspaper, hit the streets 30 minutes before Dalton got to his feet and he was gone the following day. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s “resign” dig at Sunak – “At one time, ministers did the right thing if they briefed before a budget, they walked” – offered a hint of fizzing anger. Both men are coke addicts. Hoyle drinks the diet brand following a diabetes diagnosis, while Sunak still glugs the sugary variety. The Chancellor will need the energy when his diet could soon include painfully long sessions answering endless questions at all times of the day and night.

Claudia Webbe has temporarily postponed parliamentary meetings after being branded an untruthful witness by a judge. Webbe was found guilty on 13 October of harassing a female friend of her fiancé by threatening to throw acid and send intimate photographs of the woman to her family. The Leicester East MP, who has had the Labour whip removed, intends to appeal the verdict and told one correspondent that she’d be in touch in “early November” to reschedule their meeting. Sentencing is on 4 November and the judge has warned jail is a possibility. My informant in the Midlands reports that Webbe’s disgraced predecessor, Keith Vaz, is turbo-charged by the scent of a by-election in the constituency. 

Tory whips are growling over the large number of MPs unhappy with boundary changes that could gift the party up to ten net gains. Hero of the Afghanistan retreat Ben Wallace and Lichfield lip Michael Fabricant are known to be unhappy at the butchering of their seats and my informant muttered that dozens are revolting over local proposals. The word is that the dispossessed will be rehoused, with the elderly persuaded to retire through offers of public posts, gongs and peerages – assured that Johnson will be able to deliver because the Tories are favourites to win the next general election. What could possibly go wrong?

Former chief whip Andrew Mitchell‘s surprisingly readable memoir detailing how he fell out of the establishment – the High Court judge who found against him in a £2m libel battle with the Sun hailed him with “I do hope we are not on bad terms” across a London club drawing room, as if they’d been at prep school together – is packed with interesting snippets. Mitchell records in Beyond A Fringe that voluminous and potentially libellous files on wannabe parliamentary candidates, including a young Margaret Thatcher and John Major, went up in flames on a bonfire in the then party chairman’s back garden after Tony Blair brought in the Data Protection Act. Boris Johnson’s first application was to be an MEP like dad Stanley rather than an MP, recalls Mitchell. Given the job of vetting candidates, Mitchell’s approval of the straight-banana Europhobe enraged Major. “What the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates list?” asked an incandescent PM of Mitchell. Johnson was later persuaded to withdraw an application for a safe European seat. Tory MEPs condemned him as “a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less than honest political thorn” in Major’s side. The rest is history.