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2 September 2021

Commons Confidential: Rishi Sunak’s pen pals

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Old soldier Ben Wallace is widely judged to have enjoyed a good Afghan war – unlike Dominic Raab, the Minister for Sun Loungers. Tory MPs were surprised during a call with the Defence Secretary, who stayed at his post throughout the evacuation crisis, to hear him describe the Foreign Office as “dire” and give them his personal email, promising to pursue any constituency issues. Raab, on the other hand, is running Operation Holiday Rescue as he attempts to justify his slow withdrawal from the five-star Amirandes hotel in Crete (a “sparkling boutique resort for the privileged and perceptive”). The inept Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson’s stand-in, is suddenly in the Gavin Williamson school for cabinet ministers at risk. Unless, that is, a Prime Minister with tall poppy syndrome resents Wallace’s competence and prefers to keep the likes of Raab to make himself look better.

Johnson’s paranoia is heightened by the rise of ambitious next-door neighbour Rishi Sunak. My snout whispers that Tory MPs desperate for advancement are courting the man hailed as the next PM. As a multimillionaire banker married to an even wealthier heiress – the Sunaks recently secured planning approval for a £400,000 leisure complex with pool and ballet barre at their North Yorkshire manor house – the Chancellor is too wealthy to be bought. Extreme politeness, however, may be his Achilles heel. One Tory informant grumbled that his Machiavellian colleagues are giving Sunak relatively expensive gifts, such as fancy pens, to secure gratitude and face-time – following the inevitable invitation to be thanked.

Power attracts money and at the Conservative conference in Manchester next month the party is charging guests £400 to attend a dinner where the guest speaker will be… Priti Patel. My Tory informant said they’d pay double the price not to listen to the Home Secretary.

Greater Manchester’s Andrew Gwynne is the latest Labour MP I’m told has been approached by members of the Socialist Campaign Group to challenge Keir Starmer. I understand Gwynne, who served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, was flattered but is no kamikaze politician. He wisely declined to join any plot while simultaneously declining to rule himself out if a vacancy occurred. Soon we’ll reach the point where it’d be quicker to name the Labour MPs who haven’t been sounded out to challenge Starmer.

After covering the high politics and low life in Westminster during the rule of five prime ministers for nearly 17 years, this column is to migrate next week to online only. So it’s goodbye and, when we meet on the other side, a hello too.

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[see also: Britain’s soldier-MPs are forceful campaigners – but politics is not war by other means​]

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future