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17 June 2020

Commons confidential: Spies and hacks

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Brrng, Brrng. Hello, it’s the Cabinet Secretary here. How would you feel about reducing social distancing from 2m to 1m? Corporate titans were surprised, I’m told, to receive calls from Mark Sedwill canvassing support for the Prime Minister’s latest obsession. By appointing Sedwill, who already juggles additional roles as head of the civil service and national security adviser, to a fourth job as lockdown-easing chief telephone salesman, Johnson is putting a lot of eggs in one Whitehall basket. The marginalisation of “Damaged Dom” Cummings continues.

Downing Street toyed with appointing black clergyman John Sentamu, a former Archbishop of York, to head a review into statues before Johnson came up with the old wheeze of another commission to kick inequality into long grass beyond the playing fields of Eton. Fretting he’ll never stand atop a public plinth now his popularity is waning across swathes of the country, jittery Johnson is keen to resume face-to-face meetings with rebellious Tory MPs. The PM may discover flattery no longer gets him everywhere.

Keir Starmer has accused the Cabinet Office of politicking, after Tom Watson’s peerage was rejected, allegedly over the paedophilia accusations that Watson levelled at certain MPs while he was Labour’s deputy leader. The inconsistency is glaring. Zac Goldsmith was handed a fast-track peerage by Johnson, despite having claimed a former cabinet minister was photographed with a naked boy in the sauna of a notorious guest house. No picture was ever produced. John Mann was made a peer, despite naming 22 high-profile figures, including ex-Tory MP Harvey Proctor, in a dossier on an alleged Westminster paedophile ring, which he handed to the police. Proctor was arrested then exonerated, receiving a reported £900,000 payout from the Met Police.

Czech security files published in the Sunday Times claiming Geoffrey Goodman, Harold Wilson’s adviser and a former Daily Mirror industrial editor, was passing information to Prague reminded me of when MI5 allegedly spied on British hacks. Tim Jones, on the Times labour beat, claimed he was approached in the 1970s to snoop on his then-boss Paul Routledge. The UK security service suspected “communist infiltration” of the Fleet Street group covering strikes. Jones was transferring to a new post on the paper so spilled the beans, in another triumph for MI5.

Dominic Cummings was precious even in his salad days. Ex-Independent and Telegraph journo Andy McSmith recalled Damaged Dom arriving 30 minutes late for lunch then insisting the restaurant move them to a better table. At least he didn’t insist they drive 30 miles to another eaterie. l

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

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This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars