Almost no MP has emerged with dignity from the sleaze debacle of the past three weeks. Boris Johnson’s botched attempt to spare Owen Paterson a 30-day suspension has badly damaged his credibility with his own party. The 2019 intake of ‘red wall’ MPs have turned on the old guard, accusing their colleagues of damaging the party’s reputation through outside interests. Opposition leaders have struggled to capitalise on Tory disarray. Ed Davey’s £78,000-a-year job as a consultant has left him out of the debate and Keir Starmer has faced questions over his outside earnings for legal work.
But there is one politician who suffers from none of these problems: Angela Rayner. Instead, Labour’s deputy leader has emerged as the government’s tormentor-in-chief. ‘She’s the most potent attack dog,’ says one senior Tory.
Rayner’s supporters say her background gives her an air of authenticity in the second jobs row. She left school pregnant aged 16 and worked as a care worker and trade union representative before entering politics. For her, the £82,000 MP’s salary is not a hardship that needs to be supplemented. It’s the most she has earned in her life, just as it is far more than most voters can expect to earn in theirs. Her anger over outside interests seems genuine.
When Starmer gave a speech announcing plans to press the Tories on second jobs, he felt the need to bring Rayner in as his warm-up act. ‘A lot of the attacks have been blunted by the fact people like Starmer and [David] Lammy do outside work but with Rayner it’s much harder,’ says one minister. ‘It’s a crisis crafted for her.’ She has certainly been making the most of it, threatening to report badly behaved MPs to the standards commissioner. This is ‘driving our side bonkers’, says one Tory.
Just a few weeks ago, the sense in Westminster was that Rayner had overstepped. The talk of her as a rival to Starmer had died down after she labelled Tories ‘scum’ in a late-night speech at Labour party conference. But after she finally apologised ‘unreservedly’ for the comment — and offered an in-person apology to the Prime Minister — MPs on both sides started to reassess.
Some cabinet members believe that the sleaze row is less damaging than, say, the illegal migrant crossings in the English Channel. The hope in No. 10 is that the government’s latest plan — a ban on MPs taking on second jobs as political consultants — will bring the matter to a close.
But there is no sign of the drama abating. Firstly, Rayner is still in full pursuit: she sees the past three weeks as the next phase in a ‘Tory sleaze’ campaign that Labour has been working on for more than a year. One supporter describes the situation as ‘death by a thousand letters to Lord Geidt’ (in reference to the Prime Minister’s adviser on UK ministers’ interests).
What’s more, Johnson’s troubles extend to his own party. As soon as the Prime Minister released his plan to clamp down on outside interests, MPs complained to the whips’ office that they were being cut off from work without discussion. One senior Tory — without a second job — says the problem is the process. ‘It’s just more Downing Street panic mode — announcing something just to make an opposition day debate less painful. It’s Monty Python: “He’s making it up as he goes along”.’
It doesn’t help that Johnson made millions in outside earnings when he was a backbencher yet now expects colleagues to make do with much less. (His latest project, a biography of Shakespeare with a reported advance of £500,000, is still ongoing.) The extent to which MPs have lost confidence in No. 10’s judgment can’t be overestimated. After the government’s U-turn over Owen Paterson, MPs have started to openly question whether they should take orders from the whips’ office seriously.
An attempt in Downing Street to rebuild party morale is under way. On Tuesday night, the 2019 intake were invited to a drinks reception with the Prime Minister which one figure involved described as a plot to ‘shower them with love’. Johnson urged them to ‘stick with us and stick with it’, while mocking Starmer as ‘the honourable member for Holborn, St Pancras and Mishcon de Reya’, in a reference to claims (denied by Starmer) that Jeremy Corbyn stopped him taking a second job with the law firm.
There are plans for a bigger charm offensive in the new year. All Tory MPs have been invited to a two-day residential parliamentary away session in the Midlands, the first since David Cameron was premier. Lukewarm white wine and the Prime Minister’s love-bombs are unlikely to dispel backbenchers’ concerns about the general political landscape.
When ministers attended an away day recently, several left cautiously encouraged by the polling and the presentation they were shown by Isaac Levido, the Tory strategist, on the need to focus on delivery. The message was that, despite the sleaze row, the party still garners goodwill with the public for delivering Brexit and the success of the vaccine rollout. Perhaps more importantly, Starmer does not poll well — instead he is seen as a static leader. ‘He’s one of our best assets,’ says a minister.
MPs on both sides of the House are starting to ask whether a female Labour leader would be more effective against Johnson. Members of the shadow cabinet have discussed the idea privately, pointing to how the PM finds it harder to go up against a woman at the despatch box. ‘He even struggles when a Tory woman asks a sympathetic question,’ says one senior Labour MP. ‘He has always struggled with women,’ admits one of Johnson’s advisers. ‘Metaphorically, at least.’
Johnson’s estranged aide Dominic Cummings has said a ‘Midlands woman’ would help transform Labour’s fortunes, suggesting that the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, could be a contender. He’s not the only strategist to see how a female leader could make things harder for the PM.
As Rayner gets ready to go out on the campaign trail in the two pre-Christmas by-elections — Old Bexley and Sidcup, and North Shropshire — more people will start to ask whether she is better placed to take advantage of Tory misfortune than Starmer.
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