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6 April 2022

Commons Confidential: Jealous Johnson’s poppy-lopping

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

former high-profile Conservative minister muttered that Boris Johnson cultivates the lowest poppy field in politics, scything cabinet rivals who grow too tall. The Prime Minister is barely concealing his delight at the wilting of Rishi Sunak, a chancellor who didn’t bother to mask his ambition at the height of the partygate scandal. Score-settling Johnson is currently “peeved”, whispered a well-placed Downing Street source, that he must share the international limelight with Liz Truss. After an uncomfortable dressing-down from Putin stooge Sergei Lavrov shortly before the Ukraine invasion, Truss is enjoying something of a renaissance. Jealous Johnson, basking in his public best-mate status with Volodymyr Zelensky, bristles at her developing contacts with the Ukrainian government. A senior Tory MP mumbled that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, widely considered to be fighting a good war (which coincidentally enhances his political prospects), avoids any sniping from No 10 only because he could put his tanks on the PM’s lawn.

Ofcom’s new chair, Tory peer Michael Grade, suddenly backs Channel 4 privatisation despite opposing its sale as the “pornographer-in-chief” who ran the station back in the day. Yet it was his Brextremism that clinched the £142,500 three-day job. The ermined Tory’s pro-Leave position was the deciding factor for culture wars secretary Nadine Dorries. I’m reliably informed she took against the Europeanism of the other Tory baron on the shortlist of two, the pollster and one-time deputy party chair Stephen Gilbert. He was favoured by No 10, but working for the Remain campaign was a black spot for Dorries. Grade admitted to MPs that he isn’t on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok or any social media platform. Labour figures sniff that unless he’s immediately able to list substantial economic benefits from Brexit, Grade should use his Ofcom role to ban £2-a-day roaming charges introduced by mobile phone operators when the UK left the EU.

Militant moderate Keir Starmer’s motto could be “Safety first” in his quest for votes, so MPs, trade unionists and activists were surprised when he quietly popped into a Justice For Colombia meeting over the road from parliament. Blink and you might’ve missed him, observed a figure at the TUC-backed crusade against Colombian human rights abuses, but the muscle-memory visit recalled the more radical days of the former human rights QC and chief prosecutor. Angela Rayner and a charabanc of Labour’s shadow cabinet (including Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson, Lou Haigh, Jo Stevens and Jonathan Reynolds) also attended the 20th-anniversary bash. No doubt somebody from the embassy was lurking to note names for the right-wing regime in Bogotá.

Davie Cameron’s Resurrection Tour is raising eyebrows in Westminster as the former austerity PM who lost Europe spins frenziedly to burnish a reputation further tainted by the Greensill cash-for-access scandal. His announcement that he volunteers at a food bank (his benefit cuts did generate demand) and drove a van to Ukraine is reinforced by regular self-serving interviews. The Foreign Office was “surprised”, I was told, that Dodgy Dave popped up in the US on rabid Fox News – a favoured outlet of the Kremlin, which ordered broadcasts in Russia of Fox presenter Tucker Carlson challenging Western condemnation of the invasion. Cameron defied a convention that recent ex-PMs notify government departments of interventions, particularly overseas. The first King Charles Street knew of his appearance on Fox was a media monitoring note from the Washington embassy. Perhaps Johnson’s predecessor-but-one thinks he doesn’t matter any more.

Either Conservative whips are braced for the detonation of another scandal or a blameless MP has a sure-fire defamation case. Tory chatter and WhatsApp feeds speculated that a different backbencher was about to be the subject of sex and cocaine allegations in the Sunday Times before the newspaper named the Somerset rock’n’roller David Warburton. “We thought it was somebody else,” cried an MP. Does the wrongly fingered member know he was privately traduced?

Republican MPs are understandably keeping their heads down during the Queen’s platinum jubilee, but I hear rumours that a new parliamentary group may be formed to challenge Charles’s automatic succession, highlighting shamed Andrew in order to rubbish hereditary superiority. Watch this space.

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special