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8 July 2020

Commons Confidential: The chicken or the Tory?

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

By Kevin Maguire

Humiliations go from bad to worse for Gavin Williamson, an Education Secretary displaying the authority of a Year 7 pupil suppressing tears outside the headmaster’s study as the principal demands his parents remove their ineffectual son from the school. He’s upset this time, I’m told, that Tory MPs call him Frank Spencer, after the accident-prone mummy’s boy played by Michael Crawford in the BBC 1970s sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Williamson must yearn for his days at defence, when he was mocked as Private Pike. My snout claimed Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen bellowed the latest nickname in front of an irritated Educashon Secretary. “It sounds like the kind of thing I would do,” Bridgen told me, “but I haven’t to his face. The problem is once you’ve thought of it, you can’t look at Gavin without thinking of Frank Spencer and ‘the cat’s done a whoopsie on the floor’.” Ooh Betty.

One of my snouts reports a Cold War over China in Downing Street, with Boris Johnson talking tough in No 10 while next door Rishi Sunak is discreetly urging business groups to put the public case for maintaining trade links. More than Huawei and the 5G network are at stake: a Chinese ambassador summoned to the Foreign Office for a carpeting over Hong Kong belligerently warned Dominic Raab that Beijing wouldn’t invest in Britain’s nuclear industry or HS2 if it was treated as a hostile state. Prime ministers and chancellors often fall out, though not usually after only five months. 

Eye-test driver Dominic Cummings had a sly dig at his line manager in observing Mail on Sunday political editor Glen Owen had a deeper tan and more summer suits than a Tory donor. Or a dishevelled, pasty-faced Johnson. Cummings frequently ridiculing the PM underlines both a close relationship and who is the real boss in the odd couple.

Parliamentary staff threatening to down glasses and stroll away over turning the Tea and Pugin rooms into bars selling alcohol to thirsty MPs were citing a 1996 Employment Rights Act passed by John Major’s Tory government, which entitles workers to avoid “serious and imminent” danger without the need for industrial action ballots. Coronavirus is killing right-whingers’ derision of ‘elf and safety laws that were passed to save lives.

Once photographed wrestling a Daily Mirror headless chicken during his time as a Tory party apparatchik, government comms chief Alex Aiken’s shake-up of the state propaganda machine includes a top perch for No 10 mouthpiece Lee Cain, who once dressed as a Daily Mirror fowl. Which came first: the chicken or the Tory? 

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This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation