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17 November 2021

Commons Confidential: Sunak spies an opportunity

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Sleaze is rapidly corroding support on the Tory benches for a tainted Prime Minister who turned the Owen Paterson drama into an existential crisis. Tory whips are keeping a potential by-election list of seats where sitting MPs could be brought down or quit to spend more time with other people’s money (above £82,000 a year). Oliver Dowden, who Johnson urged to be his “Cecil Parkinson without the shagging” upon his appointment as Tory chair, is panicking over the collapse in morale. Voices in No 10 demand the immediate return of Lynton Crosby. And as vultures circle above wounded Johnson, excitement grows among backbenchers ahead of the festive party season. Liz Truss, Priti Patel and every cabinet wannabe with an eye on No 10 recognise the value of pouring wine down the throats of thirsty Westminster voters. Just in case. Rishi Sunak’s out in front, as usual. Invitations to MPs this year are for drinks in No 11 rather than the boring Treasury.

Going gangbusters in North Shropshire, the Liberal Democrat by-election campaign HQ is in grand Soulton Hall, a Grade II-listed Elizabethan manor house on a 500-acre estate. The upscale hotel is a far cry from a dinghy shop or a unit on an industrial estate. It’s also two miles from the nearest railway station in Wem, though I’m told there is a bus stop nearby. Ed Davey’s yellow army of leafletters and door-knockers travelling by car are advised that a “golden rule” is to “allow a bit more time than you think is needed” because local roads are poor. Very green.

Margaret Thatcher’s Oxford chemistry tutor Harold Thompson is accused by MP Chris Evans of inventing cancel culture. In his autobiography of former Leeds United and England manager Don Revie, Evans denounces the university don for blacklisting Revie after he quit the national team for what was then a big-money £340,000 deal with United Arab Emirates. Evans, the MP for Islwyn and shadow defence procurement minister, argues that Revie’s punishment shows public figures were no-platformed long before culture wars between wokes and reactionaries. It also confirms that all analysis on the British left of contemporary injustices is able to link them to the Rusted Lady.

The fallout continues from the boozy Armistice Day flight of shame to Gibraltar on which two SNP MPs and a Labour MP were accused of becoming over-tired and emotional. Warrington North’s Charlotte Nichols blames her medication reacting to “less than five” drinks for the wheelchair that was allegedly required at the airport. She’s chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on pubs. One wag suggested the Labour MP should’ve argued she was working hard for the trade.

The mix-up wouldn’t have quite matched the moment that a taxi driver applying for a job as a data support cleanser was mistakenly interviewed live on the BBC about Apple and the Beatles in 2006, but ex-MP Stephen Pound was delighted to accept a Radio 4 request to discuss the abandoned pensions triple-lock. It was only as the BBC producer finalised the time and called him “Mr Timms” that the Ealing Lip realised she wanted Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons’ Work and Pensions Committee. Future clue for the BBC: lanky Timms is 6ft 13in, Pound 5ft 7in.

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