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3 November 2021

Commons Confidential: Matt Hancock can run but he can’t hide

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Fresh from flying to the G20 in Italy and Cop26 in Scotland, jet-loving eco warrior Boris Johnson is planning his next trip. The Prime Minister’s keen to pose with British troops overseas before Christmas. In December 2019 BC – Before Covid – he turned up in Estonia. The retreat and disorderly evacuation from Kabul rule out Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. My snout whispered that the Foreign Office suggested the Falklands in the South Atlantic. Johnson likes to bask occasionally as a Son of Thatcher but Carrie Johnson objected to an 8,000-mile trip taking as long as 20 hours, with a refuelling stop on Ascension Island. Cyprus, where Britain holds two sovereign military bases, Akrotiri and Dhekelia, may prove more convenient.

Hounded Matt Hancock can run but he can’t hide. Energetic Tory MPs go for a weekly 7am jog in central London. The athletic club includes Will Quince, James Duddridge, Duncan Baker, peer James Bethell and the disgraced former health secretary. His attempt to stop newspapers republishing pictures of him breaching Covid regulations by getting to grips with Gina Coladangelo is shutting the privacy door after the backlash has bolted. One of the racers complained that passing members of the public regularly recognise and swear at a Tiggerish Tory who grimly tries to take the abuse in his stride. The comeback trail is a marathon, not a sprint.

In an era of political fast-talking, the thoughtful First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, revels in his professorial reputation. Described by one admirer as packing the charisma of an old cardigan, the one-time academic was suitably reserved after shadow cabinet refugee Andy McDonald praised an intellectually sweeping Aneurin Bevan lecture at Westminster, in which Drakeford argued social solidarity is the UK’s foundation, and so only Labour can save a Disunited Kingdom. “I’m afraid I’m built for the 50-minute sound-bite,” replied Drakeford, a wry truth only a supremely confident leader could speak in 21st-century Britain.

Relations between Johnson and Nicola, Queen of Scots, were said to be close to freezing point at the global heating summit in Glasgow. Sturgeon was granted only ten minutes with the PM. That, observed an informant, was five minutes longer than she wanted and twice the length of time he desired with her. 

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston appeared distinctly miffed that Tracey Crouch, the Tory MP and Tottenham Hotspur fan appointed by Johnson to review football’s governance, didn’t loiter to enjoy his words of wisdom at a reception which had the FA Cup as guest of honour. “I just saw Tracey Crouch,” grumbled Huddleston, “quickly heading the other way as I was about to start my remarks.” Huddleston is no Cicero and has an unenviable reputation among the Westminster sisterhood for mansplaining. He once mistook his Labour shadow, Alison McGovern, for her front-bench colleague Louise Haigh. Crouch was at least correctly recognised.

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Covid-isolating Keir Starmer hotly disputed my snout’s claim last week that fewer than 20 Labour MPs turned up to be photographed with him, the leader forcefully insisting the figure was more than 100. It would be churlish to calculate that is little more than half the Parliamentary Labour Party when the primary source for the story conceded he arrived on the scene early. One dispute considerably more intractable is Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension. Former chief whip Nick Brown was ready to take him back into the parliamentary family. But his successor, Alan Campbell, is content to leave the ex-leader whipless. Labour comrades are coming to the conclusion that unless Starmer relents his predecessor and London neighbour might be forced to choose between running as an independent or retirement at the next general election.

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