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9 February 2022

Commons Confidential: No 10 fears a blitz of lockdown fines

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Filthy hangovers are worsening, not improving, in Downing Street after walkouts, resignations and a blokey reshuffle. Plod’s probes into a dirty dozen lockdown gatherings identified by the civil servant Sue Gray has the party crowd fretting that careers will be blighted or destroyed. Fear is sweeping No 10 that multiple fines could be imposed, with revellers punished for each boozy bash attended. Applying the law firmly would prove a nice little earner for straitened public finances when Covid sanctions start at £200 and soar to £10,000 for organisers of mass events. Gloria Gaynor fan Johnson’s under investigation for four, including the birthday cake ambush and the “Abba night” in the flat celebrating Dominic Cummings’ departure. My snout calculates that the smack of firm justice would cover the “high five figures” cost of Gray’s inquiry with money to spare. The PM’s praetorian guard, who are busy briefing that he’d fight to survive even after a fixed penalty notice would be weakened should Johnson end up with a criminal record as long as his arm.

Johnson’s worst best friend Rishi Sunak continues to be considerably less loyal in private than the Prime Minister pretends in public. Thatcherite Brextremists, who met the Chancellor in his Commons office and were described by my informant as “the John Redwoods of the party”, left muttering that Nouveau Rishi blamed high taxes and public spending on his requirement to support his Downing Street line manager’s agenda. Challenged on what he had cut, Sunak’s decision to cite the abolition of the “tampon tax” didn’t wow the Conservative Party’s male, pale and stale demographic.

Covid-19 proved Jeremy Hunt’s VIP lane to publicity and the waning of the crisis is reducing opportunities for a still-ambitious former cabinet minister hoping to better his runners-up medal in the last Tory leadership election. Hunt has demanded that the health select committee up its game to boost his profile, particularly on social media by posting more videos — primarily of himself. Critics wonder if Tories knowing less about Hunt might improve his chances.

Besieged by questions about his security clearance and lobbying for Huawei and Hydro Industries, Guto Harri is having a rough time with his transfer to No 10. He has been banned from giving personal interviews after calling his new old boss “not a total clown”. Harri-kari’s arrival further disproves right-whinge claims that the BBC’s a hot bed of lefties: he spent 18 years at the Beeb and is the third No 10 comms chief from the broadcaster since 2010 (preceded by Theresa May’s Robbie Gibb and David Cameron’s Craig Oliver). No wonder some in Labour think the BBC’s full of Tories.

Conservative MPs have been advised to speak carefully when justifying Boris Johnson’s Jimmy Savile smear against Keir Starmer. The Prime Minister used parliamentary privilege. Tory whips recall how Mansfield’s Ben Bradley was forced to grovel and pay substantial donations to several charities after falsely tweeting that Jeremy Corbyn “sold British secrets to communist spies”.

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