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16 February 2022

Commons Confidential: Ben Wallace eyes the Tory leadership

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Ukraine is a diplomatic sideshow for a prime minister closeted with lawyers to answer a police questionnaire on Downing Street’s lockdown parties. My snout muttered that No 10, aware it wasn’t good optics for Boris Johnson to meet more Conservative MPs to shore up his position than world leaders to avoid a European war, reached for the Rolodex to generate extra calls. The results included a cosy chat with Mohammed bin Salman, the unsavoury crown prince of a Saudi Arabian regime that US intelligence says butchered Jamal Khashoggi and owns the football club Newcastle United. Should Belarus’s tyrannical Alexander Lukashenko start buying British arms and sportswashing dirty money in the Premier League, he too might be promoted to the PM’s friends and family list.

No greater sacrifice can a cabinet minister make than to lay down a family holiday for the sake of his ambitions. The Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who dodged doing a Raab by cancelling a long weekend away, is organising his forces to push for the Conservative leadership whenever Johnson gets felled, whispered a very prominent Tory MP. The Ukraine crisis is producing no ceasefire in the governing party. Also busily manoeuvring is the trade minister Penny Mordaunt. Named after the Arethusa-class cruiser HMS Penelope, an aide to the Pompey warship briefed that the Brexiteer and former defence secretary is a dark horse worth a punt. Front runners Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss must be fretting that the longer this race lasts the greater the danger they’ll be pipped at the post.

The one-time racy low-budget actor Joy Morrissey has been appointed another of Johnson’s unpaid bag carriers, and can make up for criticising her leader’s international aid cuts. The army of drones across government were instructed that their top priority is to update Grant Shapps’s loyalty spreadsheet. Nothing else matters. It’s all about the survival of one man.

During the parliamentary recess, the threadbare carpet outside Strangers’ Bar was ripped up and is being replaced. After the Bermondsey and Old Southwark mauler Neil Coyle was banned from the watering hole and lost the Labour whip over a racist “Fu Manchu” rant at a lobby journalist of British-Chinese heritage, a regular drinker observed it was the blood on the carpet inside that needed cleaning.

Vicars host church fetes larger than the Conservatives’ spring conference in Blackpool next month. Rejecting requests for media credentials to the Lancashire shindig, the Tories replied that it’s a “small event” and will be limited to 30 members of the media. Presumably so hacks don’t outnumber party members.

As jittery Johnson prepares to lift England’s remaining pandemic restrictions to bolster support among Covidiot backbenchers, saner Tory MPs are wondering why Labour didn’t demand a price in the past – better sick pay, retaining Universal Credit’s £20 uplift – for backing No 10’s controls instead of selling their votes for free. Anybody know the answer?

[See also: Commons Confidential: No 10 fears a blitz of lockdown fines]

Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.

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