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20 April 2022

Commons Confidential: Johnson targets Sunak’s bag-carrier

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Brazen Boris Johnson sounded like a Prime Minister running against himself in a general election campaign, mused a Tory unimpressed by the lawbreaking lawmaker’s chutzpah at a meeting of Conservative MPs on Tuesday night (19 April). Collateral human political damage in the rapid rise and faster fall of rival Rishi Sunak may include his parliamentary private secretary, Claire Coutinho. The East Surrey MP who carries the Chancellor’s bags is a marked woman in No 10, I’m informed. Word reached next door that the former Merrill Lynch banker would badmouth Boris Johnson when he was a sell stock and MPs were buying shares in Sunak. One MP granted a few minutes with the Chancellor blabbed to the angry neighbours next door. Coutinho, who used to run a supper club and appeared on Nigella Lawson’s Channel 4 cooking game show The Taste, is discovering ambition can turn sour.

Trembling ministers live in fear of the phone ringing with orders to do the worst job in politics: defend partying Johnson in the morning broadcast studios. Hapless Brandon Lewis suffered a car crash this week when he unsuccessfully likened the PM’s fine to a speeding ticket. Regularly on punishment duty are George Eustice and Grant Shapps. On one baleful day an exasperated Eustice, a one-time strawberry farmer who is now Environment Secretary, moaned “Why me again? Can’t Grant do it?” No 10 replied that Shapps was sick. The Transport Secretary had fallen off his bike, apparently.

A judge’s ruling that Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen lied under oath in a High Court feud over a family vegetable business reminded an informant that the combative MP was once considered for a minor ministerial post. The Leicestershire lip is unpopular with colleagues who’ve felt the whip of his sharp tongue. Downing Street toyed with a junior defence post to keep Bridgen, briefly a trainee Royal Marine before dropping out, in faraway places. The anticipated backlash from overlooked loyalists scuppered the cunning plan.

Labour frontbencher Fabian Hamilton has a bit part in Say Yes to Tess, a musical written by and starring Tess Seddon, who gained 303 votes standing against him for the Yorkshire Party at the 2017 general election. Seddon, the daughter of a Labour activist, tells how the MP’s supporters feared his 7,250 majority was vulnerable. One issued a thuggy “we know where you live” threat to pressure her into withdrawing. Hamilton’s majority was inflated to 16,991 by the Corbyn surge. Seddon declines to name the intimidator, alas.

The Daily Express’s former political editor Robert Gibson, who died recently, was scribe or secretary of the press gallery freemasons back in the day. The funny-handshake journalist, who went on to create his own Westminster news agency, was incandescent when this column revealed his furtive side after I was forwarded masonic lodge minutes he inadvertently emailed to a number of MPs. The parliamentary press pinny boys included an old Times hand, a couple of ex-Express scribblers and a one-time Westminster boss of the Press Association newswire. Reciting ludicrous oaths played a prominent role in the secret gatherings, I recall. After weeks of ribbing, furious Gibbo denounced yours truly as a Blairite. That was news to the Blairites but confirmed the political designation was a widely deployed smear in the Tony years.

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