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15 July 2020

Commons Confidential: Westminster sobriety

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Nye Bevan and Jennie Lee, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper…Jeremy Corbyn and Laura Alvarez? The wife of the former Labour leader was considered for the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance slate in the party’s NEC constituency contests, I’m told. She and Seumas Milne’s Bollinger Bolshevik deputy, James Schneider, didn’t make a six-strong list agreed by an alphabet soup of factions including Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Alvarez would have enlivened dreary NEC meetings with her molten desire to keep burning bright a Corbyn flame.

It’s going from bad to worse for Gavin Williamson, who is flirting with cabinet permanent exclusion. My snout said that Rishi Sunak has snatched for his autumn Budget a plan for mid-life apprenticeships that the Education Secretary wanted to unveil in the summer mini-Budget. An unhappily sidelined Williamson, 44, who may soon need retraining for a career change, isn’t concealing his vexation at his lunch money being stolen.

Mask muddles add to the exasperation of Sage members, Boris Johnson’s human shields who revolt whenever the PM pretends PR decisions are based on scientific advice. Downing Street is considering how to downgrade the advisory body, whispers a snout, amid fresh talk of resignations. One expert has canvassed others, arguing a mass walkout would pack a greater punch. Epidemiologists understand how bad news spreads.

Shadow cabinet office minister Helen Hayes is taking up the corkscrew on behalf of parliamentary bar staff who are concerned that the reopening of England’s pubs without safeguards will spread the virus in Westminster. MPs are, for once, behaving soberly. The Adjournment café-restaurant recently sold only a single bottle of beer all evening.

Former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove labelling Huawei “an intimate part of the Chinese state” reminded Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s spin doctor, of the fallout when he discussed intimate details supplied by British intelligence on the sex life of France’s then finance minister, Dominique Strauss Kahn, ahead of a meeting with the chancellor. Spooks complained that Whelan wasn’t vetted to receive classified information after he enlightened thirsty hacks in the press bar, revealing the Treasury gained more invaluable insights on European counterparts from reading the Financial Times than from MI6 reports. Ed Balls was interrogated over how the one-time card-carrying communist received his unauthorised knowledge. The most intriguing mystery is which political journalist informed MI6 about Whelan’s observations? 

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine