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21 October 2020

Commons Confidential: Arron Banks and his “Bad Boys of Brexit” fail to take New Zealand

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Downing Street staffers are fuelling speculation about glum-looking Boris Johnson’s domestic affairs and his relationship with his fiancée, Carrie Symonds. The boss of one FTSE 100 company recounts a meeting with the PM in a London private dining room. Towards the end of the night, the businessperson observed to one of Johnson’s aides that when Theresa May was in charge they’d had daytime coffee and biscuits in No 10, so was surprised a new father was out on the town. “If you had Boris’s home life,” replied the PM’s aide, “would you want to be at home?”

New Zealand Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s victory gave Arron Banks and his self-styled Bad Boys of Brexit another bloody nose. The wealthy big-mouth talked about moving to the land of the long white cloud after living there for six months earlier this year, while campaigning with a Leave.EU squad for the reactionary Winston Peters and the New Zealand First party. Banks’s confident predictions of gains for the nationalists ended with Peters going down with an outfit that lost all its seats. The revenge of the woman they mocked as Jacinderella and the Ugly Sisters may be the warm-up act before another of Banks’s heroes, Donald Trump, is consigned even more spectacularly to history’s dustbin.

Serial rebel Jeremy Corbyn has resumed his old career, defying the whip to vote against another Labour leader. But what of John McDonnell? The hell-raiser turned unlikely elder statesman is playing a cannier game. I hear the former shadow chancellor met Claire Ainsley, Keir Starmer’s policy director, to discuss the future programme. The talk is of a role for an increasingly pragmatic socialist.

Guffaws after Rishi Sunak’s allies accused Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham of a “soapbox moment” in demanding lockdown compensation. The pocket-sized Chancellor requires an actual soapbox to reach the podium mic at Downing Street virus briefings. A disloyal Treasury official sniggered that his diminutive line manager shops for clothes in kids’ departments.

According to my snout, tearoom Tories discussing whether the PM is still feeling the effects of Covid-19, and whether symptoms include loss of vigour, cruelly decided that the debate will be settled in nine months or a year. Betting has opened on a seventh, eighth or (insert own number) Johnson child.

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No 10 is rebranding as a “national reset” a potential lockdown after Starmer called for the circuit break. Downing Street accuses the TUC, involved in tentative discussions, of leaking details to the Labour leader. Never! 

This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic