Commons Confidential: The cabinet’s Veruca Salt

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When Priti Patel thinks outside the box, cabinet colleagues wish the Home Secretary kept her thoughts inside a padlocked casket and lost the key. Washing her hands of the government’s failure to impose tough border restrictions at the start of the pandemic in March last year, Patel earned disapproval by blaming the PM and declaring she had wanted controls. So No 10 enjoyed dismissing her department’s proposed alternative to forcing arrivals into Britain to quarantine in hotels. The Home Office floated the idea of copying Poland’s selfie app, which at random moments would demand real-time photographic proof that a person isolating was at the address given to the authorities. Opponents warned a supposedly quarantining chancer could in half an hour snap a phone-full of pictures at the same spot in changes of clothes and send them separately over following days to pass facial recognition tests.

Invisible Liz Truss is fretting she hasn’t won a golden ticket (at the time of writing) to the 5pm virus press conferences in No 10. Patel appeared twice in a fortnight after the frat house premier responded to jibes that he is heading a boys’ club. The International Trade Secretary is considered unusually high maintenance in Downing Street, a Veruca Salt of the cabinet. She suffers from the common political condition of media withdrawal syndrome, where self-esteem plummets when a sufferer is not seen regularly on TV or in the papers. But she has missed the point of the briefings – to generate zero coverage.

[See also: Commons Confidential: The workers divided]

Kwasi Kwarteng and Robert Jenrick should bury the hatchet. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is busily decarbonising the economy, is furious that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government approved the first new coal mine in decades. But the decision to open Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven in Cumbria was way above the pay grade of both departments, and was taken by a superior power. The pit is in the Copeland constituency of the Tory MP Trudy Harrison: one of the PM’s two parliamentary private secretaries. What Trudy wants, Trudy gets.

[See also: Kevin Maguire’s Diary: My grudge with Boris Johnson, Labour leaks – and where is Allegra Stratton?]

Collywobbles in No 10 as the Tory West Midlands mayor Andy Street is vulnerable to Labour’s Liam Byrne in May’s elections (should they go ahead). London is already lost – Shaun Bailey is a Conservative opponent Labour would dream of inventing if he wasn’t real. Meanwhile, Scotland presents an SNP nightmare for both main Westminster parties. My snout whispered Johnson is anxious to keep a geographic Middle England blue, yet is keen to avoid risking the personal taint of defeat. Two-way Street politics isn’t for the PM. 

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 27 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost

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