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18 May 2017updated 19 May 2017 12:11pm

Commons Confidential: Why Chris Grayling can’t escape Southern rail

 Labour has picked the Aslef train driver Ed Mayne to pursue the Tall Controller in Epsom and Ewell.

By Kevin Maguire

The highest number of seats I’ve heard a senior Conservative predicting that Theresa May will win is the 600 cited by one cabinet minister. He laughed, so I assume he was joking, though Labour has been reduced to hoping that hubris averts a Tory landslide. A veteran Labour MP defending a 12,000-plus majority in one of the party’s safest seats muttered that his agent had been ordered by party HQ for the first time to spend up to the £12,000 constituency legal limit though victory usually costs half that. To the list of reasons May plumped for the grubby early election she’d dismissed as bad for Britain must be added the Conservative fear that Labour would ditch Jeremy Corbyn next year. My snout whispered that May was worried she’d lose a valuable Tory asset by 2020.

Shunted into sidings for the election, the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, is unable to escape the Southern train dispute. Labour has picked the Aslef train driver Ed Mayne to pursue the Tall Controller in Epsom and Ewell. Grayling’s return to parliament is assured, with 58.3 per cent of the vote last time out, but a performance in high office as unreliable as the strike-hit Southern’s services leaves him a favourite to be derailed in the triumphant PM’s reshuffle.

May’s generous personal endorsement of John Bercow in Buckingham – “it is more important than ever that the House of Commons has a redoubtable champion in the chair” – hints that readoption as Commons Speaker is a mere formality. Bercow’s is the loneliest campaign in the land: he’s sitting on a 23,000 majority and Labour and the Libs stick with convention by not running candidates against the Speaker. He canvasses, however, as if it’s a marginal. Door-knocking two years ago, Bercow joked cheerily to a constituent, “Don’t worry, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness.” “No, but I am,” replied the householder. Fortunately for Bercow, this faith group usually doesn’t vote.

The struggle takes many forms. Corbyn’s posh mouthpiece James Schneider is sharing a jumper for the duration of the campaign with a girlfriend who toils at Labour’s Southside HQ. My informant mutters that the pair wear the pullover on alternate days. Socialism is a garment for the two, not the many.

Bus envy and paranoia in the leader’s office when a senior apparatchik screamed that Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, was trying to overtake his boss with a campaign coach of his own. Watson’s wheels are a red, eight-seater Hyundai i800 people carrier, while the prophet of Islington is roaming the country in the full, 28-passenger works. Corbyn’s driver was pulled off a Shakin’ Stevens tour, so for the next three weeks it’s “This Ole House” for Jezza.

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Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror.

This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies