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11 November 2020

Commons Confidential: Operation Grovel

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Start polishing the palace silver, rehearse the “Star-Spangled Banner” and prepare a carriage because Downing Street has concluded that a state visit grander than Donald Trump’s red carpet treatment is the best way to woo Joe Biden. Operation Grovel, as it is nicknamed, is atonement both for Boris Johnson’s “part-Kenyan” dig at the US president-elect’s former line manager, Barack Obama, and for indulgence of the loser barricading himself inside the White House. My snout whispered that Downing Street hopes extra bells and whistles, including a coach ride with the Queen along the Mall, may coax over Biden. The reason? Trade Secretary Liz Truss has told cabinet colleagues the UK-US deal is dead without a miraculous resurrection.

Biden is a soft touch compared with Kamala Harris. The vice-president-elect traditionally liaises with the deputy PM, who in this case is the undiplomatic Dominic Raab. I am told the African- and Asian-American daughter of Jamaican and Indian migrants is “aware” that the First Secretary declared defiantly that he wouldn’t take a knee for the Black Lives Matter movement, boasting that there are only two people he respected that way: the Queen and his missus when he proposed to her. Short of waving a Confederate flag and wearing white pointy hoods, it is difficult to imagine how the government’s Dumb and Dumber could cause greater offence.

And spare a thought for Karen Pierce, our woman in Washington. The UK ambassador is struggling, I’m told, to build meaningful bridges with Biden’s team while “Britain’s Trump” remains persona non grata. She did lure to an embassy dinner “Biden whisperer” Chris Coons, holder of the president-elect’s Delaware Senate seat and tipped as a possible secretary of state. Courting Obama adviser David Axelrod was less fruitful. He was frozen out by Biden’s praetorians for claiming the candidate would lose unless he got out of his basement. Political acumen like that is why Ed Miliband hired the Axe for a six-figure sum in a 2015 election, then saw the Tories win their first majority for 23 years.

Over in Labour land there is growing unease over that fact that Keir Starmer, MPs and peers did not mention suspended leader Jeremy Corbyn by name at a PLP meeting which discussed anti-Semitism and the EHRC report. One spooked Blairite veteran, a Corbyn critic, later opined: “It’s like 1938 in the USSR… the reaction merely reminds me about the change of opinion which sent Bukharin and many others into oblivion.” Jeremy who?

Westminster’s latest wicked whisper is that a cabinet minister and his high-profile wife are splitting. No room in the marriage for two giant egos, apparently.

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump