Commons Confidential: The puppet and puppeteer

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As he is the pin-up boy for the porkiest of pork-barrel politics, Robert Jenrick’s shared responsibility for the £4bn “levelling up” slush fund is setting alarm bells ringing in Whitehall. Mandarins are discussing the need for “robust” rules on the kitty, which Labour views as re-election bribes for Red Wall Tories. Spender-in-chief Jenrick has form as long as his arm; last month he faced claims of bias when, after some departmental shenanigans, his Nottinghamshire constituency of Newark received £25m of the £3.6bn Towns Fund, while poorer areas missed out. The Housing Secretary also overruled official advice to assist Tory donor Richard Desmond to avoid a potential £45m community levy the day before a development tax came into force. Devising stringent rules is one thing, imposing them another.

 

Relocation, relocation, relocation. Rishi Sunak considering Darlington or Teesside for a Treasury outpost is surely not entirely unconnected to how much handier the move would be for the Chancellor than, say, Goole or Gateshead. With ministers expected to spend part of the week in satellite offices, Sunak could enjoy long weekends in his mansion set in 12 acres of the Yorkshire Dales. It’s not who you know, but where they live.

 

Where the finger of suspicion points in the Downing Street inquiry into who leaked Boris Johnson’s plan to impose the England-wide, month-long lockdown is discernible from this No 10 snout. “Why,” he whispered, “do you think Boris would sack the Govester when he’s suddenly the puppet and the PM the puppeteer?” With Gove back doing what he’s told, this may be another leak inquiry lost in the long grass.

 

[see also: Commons Confidential: Sunak’s self-promotion]

 

Keen to emphasise he is as Kentish as oasts and Pop Larkin, county MP Tom Tugendhat misses no opportunity to extol the charms of the Rock public house in Chiddingstone Hoath. Yet his doing so is upsetting regulars. “Seeing as no one in there would recognise our supposedly local MP,” messaged a beery fixture, “I hope he has a strong imaginative flair.” Short of standing a round every Friday night, I fear the chair of the foreign affairs committee may be put off his pint by the smouldering resentment of drinkers when he drops in.

 

Zoom calls are no longer polite between ministers and business leaders, I’m told. One head of a major company complained that the stop-start lockdowns had destroyed goodwill. His verdict on government players: Michael Gove is shifty, Alok Sharma clueless, Johnson annoyingly vague and falsely upbeat, while Sunak asks intelligent questions and is well briefed. 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article appears in the 04 December 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed

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