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1 April 2020

Commons Confidential: The new bag ’n’ specs

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings, Chris Whitty… Covid-19 has forced into isolation the four big beasts in the No 10 team that orchestrated a national lockdown to stop the virus spreading, triggering mutterings about whether leaders practise what they preach. Huddling around the Cobra table was never a fit idea. Nor were press conference podiums less than two metres apart. Many ministers also didn’t socially distance from special advisers; aides were barred from Millbank TV studios after Health Secretary Hancock, diagnosed with coronavirus, and Michael Gove, in rude fettle as I type, each turned up with three minions crowding around them. Do as I say, not as I do. 

No social distance of the class variety between the same coronavirus quartet: all four are privately educated Oxbridge sorts. One state-schooled antagonist growled that expensive tuition is no guarantee of independence or common sense. 

Labour’s scattered shadow cabinet meeting on Zoom during the last days of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure imposed elusive discipline and kept contributions mercifully brief from even more garrulous members, I’m told. Andrew Gwynne reportedly discovered that video is a visual medium the moment comrades clocked that he had joined them from his bed, a duvet pulled tight to his chin to avoid full disclosure. The mute button proved no match for bellicose Northumberland MP and former pitman Iaaan Laaaverrry, whom one participant swore he could hear from 300 miles away.

The end of days for Corbyn coincided with an internal defeat and a coronavirus split between Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti, who hitherto agreed on everything. My snout said that during a discussion on the government’s draconian emergency powers bill the outgoing leader and shadow home secretary favoured opposition, but the shadow attorney general and former Liberty director won the day arguing the Human Rights Act allowed the party to back it.

Leaktastic organisation by Labour’s Southside HQ in agreeing to give Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey and the five deputy wannabes quarter of an hour’s notice of the results before official publication. Past cunning campaigns used the carrying of handbags (Harriet Harman) and wearing of glasses (Alan Johnson) to signal victory or defeat to scoop-hungry hacks. WhatsApp is the new bag ‘n’ specs.

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The upside of south Wales plod criticising MP Stephen Kinnock for visiting dad Neil on his 78th with food, paracetamol and TLC for him and mother Glenys was that many old comrades got in touch to wish the ex Labour leader happy birthday. Every coronavirus cloud… 

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This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021