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30 March 2022

Commons Confidential: Zelensky prepares to snub Johnson

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Chatter in Brussels, relayed to Westminster, is that pin-up Volodymyr Zelensky doesn’t want a visit from wannabe mini-me Boris Johnson. The PM is “desperate”, according to Tory chair Oliver Dowden, for a photo shoot in Ukraine after the leaders of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic travelled to Kyiv. The PR would certainly provide a handy diversion from partygate fines and lies. Yet word in the European Commission is that Zelensky, regularly praising needy Johnson and taking almost daily telephone calls from No 10, isn’t eager to play host. Brexiteers will accuse other Europeans of jealousy. Zelensky did his homework on Johnson, pandering to Bozo’s old school patriotism in telling the PM that Ukrainian troops shouted “God Save the Queen” when firing British missiles. Johnson mistakes flattery for respect.

Keir Starmer was embarrassed by Lord Lebedev of Siberia publishing a congratulatory message from him when Johnson rewarded the Moscow-born hereditary media baron with a peerage, but he remains convinced sleaze is a Tory weakness — particularly during a historic cost-of-living crisis. Labour MPs expect their leader to take them into the general election, though few would bet the ranch on winning. Talk therefore frequently turns to who’s next. Macho Labour’s never had a woman as permanent leader in 122 years. I’m told a potential mould-breaker, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, is ready to wait a little longer. Frustrated friends complain she’s another who’d rally behind Wes Streeting.

Crashing from hero to zero within months, Rishi Sunak is suddenly fighting to keep his No 11 job, never mind moving next door into No 10. The Chancellor’s backfiring petrol stunt with a Sainsbury’s worker’s Kia was followed by the ever so ‘umble multi-millionaire protesting that he owns a battered old VW Golf. The Treasury’s Arthur Daley overlooked his family’s Range Rover, BMW and Lexus. My snout chortled that the only person seen driving the Golf in Downing Street was the nanny.

It was Welsh wit Kevin Brennan who landed Johnson in trouble when the PM was criticised for laughing as Sunak spoke about bombarded Ukrainians huddling in basements at the start of his mini-Budget. The Cardiff Labour MP, an accomplished heckler with acute timing, caught Johnson’s eye over the chamber before Sunak started speaking and shouted, “Watch your back, Boris.” Johnson appreciated the pointed quip.

Slappy Will Smith demonstrating why mocking appearances is dangerous has failed to deter Tories who’ve noticed Kit Malthouse is piling on the pounds as policing minister. One fattist in the tea room now calls him “Kit Warehouse”. That’s not the worst jibe. Another cruelly claimed he was large enough to be renamed Kit “Amazon distribution” Warehouse. Westminster retains a public school humour.

Usually mild-mannered Tory MP Simon Hoare tweeting that he’d have “lamped” Chris Rock created merriment among fellow Tories. “Still waters run deep,” the indignant Dorset blue told a sceptical Iain Duncan Smith, a former lieutenant in the Scots Guards. It was an Oscar-winning performance, I hear.

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