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14 October 2020

Commons confidential: Contortionist-in-chief

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster. 

By Kevin Maguire

Going into a telephone box as Superman and emerging as Clark Kent, Rishi Sunak is providing traditional Conservative austerity in a new suit. The Chancellor’s refusal to compensate millions of workers and businesses whacked by virus restrictions frustrates even the Prime Minister. My snout whispers emasculated Boris Johnson is growing irritated by tacit resignation threats, with Sunak challenging the PM to find a new chancellor if he wants higher spending instead of cuts and tax rises. Parachuted into the Treasury in February to replace sharp-elbowed Sajid Javid, Sunak has become the puppet-master, tangling the strings of a distressed PM.


Labour critics of Keir Starmer barking but rarely biting Boris Johnson and whipping MPs to vote for virus restrictions he publicly savages, fuels a conversation about who really speaks for the party. Andy Burnham basks in favourable headlines as Greater Manchester’s mayor, mauling the PM with a passion often absent in the Labour leader’s calibrated assaults. The bullish Manc mayor and lawyerly Camden leader are Labour’s own north-south divide.


[see also: Leader: The revolt of the north]

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Boris Johnson’s mouthpiece Allegra Stratton, appointed to speak for the PM at White House-style televised briefings, has experience of talking her way out of unforgivable gaffes. As Newsnight’s political editor, Stratton was accused of falsely portraying a young single mother, Shanene Thorpe – who worked full-time – as a benefits scrounger. The hack-turned-propagandist will find herself in tighter spots than Houdini as Johnson’s contortionist-in-chief.


Louche Brextremist Nigel Farage’s latest venture is financial advice with the launch of a daily newsletter, “Fortune and Freedom”. The onetime metal exchange dealer conjures the prospect of juicy returns on investments. Few do as well from rubbishing the EU as a contemporary Colonel Blimp enjoying the champagne lifestyle, bankrolled in the past (is he still?) by moneybags nationalist Arron Banks. When Brexit is ruinous, punters would do well to study any T&Cs.


At a mere £30m, UK business with Mongolia, the world’s most sparsely populated nation, is the value of a few yaks. Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski’s glee at Johnson appointing him trade envoy to Ulaanbaatar is generating giggles. Tory MPs pray their self-absorbed colleague makes the 5,692-mile journey from Shrewsbury by road. Regularly.


Now he has a peerage, No 10 staffers wonder when veteran adviser Eddie Lister will finally move on. The chief-of-staff title is up for grabs and Lister suggests he may now wish to stay longer. Dominic Cummings has other ideas, I’m informed.


This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?