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Boris Johnson plays down his spending

This week's gossip and scandals in Westminster and the media brought to you by MANDRAKE

Prime Minister Boris Johnson reviewed troops during a visit to at RAF Northolt. Photo: Henry Nicholls/PA Wire/PA Images

Obsessive about both his personal security and the need to be seen as a man of the people, Boris Johnson has done what he can to play down the reports that he is splashing out £4m for the imposing Brightwell Manor in the village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, Oxfordshire. Already, however, the estate has its own Wikipedia page and is beginning to figure in records held by the Land Registry.

The registry’s records, updated last month, show that a decades-old right of access to electric cables is no longer present on a field plan for the property. The title, still registered to the vendors, showed that there was an agreement in place that allowed “the Southern Electricity Board Full Right and Liberty” at the property. The green area on the official plans showing the access rights has now been removed.

In September 2020, I disclosed how Johnson, furious that a photographer with a long lens had taken a photograph of him walking on the Chequers estate as he recovered from Covid, immediately ordered that £25,916 of taxpayers’ money be found to upgrade the already tight security at the prime ministerial country retreat.

The plans for Brightwell Manor show how extensive the Johnson estate will be, complete with a pond, sweeping drive and water course running along a neighbouring property.

The Grade II listed mansion itself has 11 bedrooms, six reception rooms and seven bathrooms, in addition to outbuildings, stabling and just under five acres of land.

Brightwell Manor’s best-known previous owner was William Inge, who lived from 1860 to 1954. He was professor of divinity at Cambridge, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and a prolific writer, who was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature three times.

Johnson, who attempted as prime minister in 2018 to prorogue parliament to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s Brexit plans ahead of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, would no doubt regard Inge as something of a soulmate.

Inge was just as contemptuous of democracy, saying “human beings are born unequal, and the only persons who have a right to govern their neighbours are those who are competent to do so.” Inge was also a eugenicist, another position Johnson would not necessarily have had a problem with. He had to sack an adviser named Andrew Sabisky when it turned out he had expressed enthusiastic views about eugenics.

Thérèse Coffey’s “let them eat turnips” advice to her fellow citizens during the ongoing Brexit food shortages raised eyebrows in the Commons, where the environment secretary is known to be a very discerning foodie who would not normally be caught dead eating such a humble root vegetable.
She seldom eats in the restaurants on the parliamentary estate, considering them to serve “basic school meals”, favouring instead local restaurants such as the Cinnamon Club within easy striking distance of the Commons in case she needs to get back for a division bell. The innumerable businesses that have afforded her hospitality lately – the brewers Greene King and the Betting and Gaming Council, for instance – must also have seen what she said as a bit of a turnip for the books. Between February and December last year alone she chomped her way through £4,442-worth of hospitality at various venues.

Mandrake hears whispers Labour plans to break with tradition and hold this year’s autumn conference after the Tories, quite possibly because they want to get the last word in.

They’re also considering dropping their spring and business conferences. The strategy is intriguing. Labour is so far ahead in the polls, Sir Keir Starmer clearly takes the view there’s a lot to be said for keeping it low key.

Sir Bernard Ingham may have been Margaret Thatcher’s press chief and more lately an enthusiastic Brexiteer, but I was sorry all the same to hear of his death at the age of 90. Writing the now defunct Pendennis diary in the Observer during the height of Thatcher’s power in the 80s, I’d routinely get calls from Ingham to complain about less-than-respectful pieces I’d written about the then prime minister and occasionally about him. “I just want you to know that what you have written is rubbish, but it is, of course, your right to write rubbish,” he’d wearily intone, and then the line would invariably go dead.

Ingham never escalated a complaint to my editor – still less my proprietor – because, as a former journalist himself, coming up the traditional way through regional papers, he understood what the game was all about. I also don’t ever recall him being evasive or lying if I asked him a question. The approach from No 10 more recently – often from people without any traditional training in journalism – has been to be evasive, if not disingenuous, and then, upon publication, to complain aggressively and to escalate. I suppose I mourn not so much Ingham as a time when there really was some respect between No 10 and the journalists who wrote about its residents.

Three things convince Mandrake that Boris Johnson will be fighting Henley and not his present seat Uxbridge and South Ruislip at the next general election. The first obviously was Johnson’s unequivocal denial he had any intention of switching to another constituency. The second is the mansion he is purchasing within easy striking distance of Henley. And third it is what the Daily Mail – to all intents and purposes his mouthpiece these days – has been saying lately.

After I disclosed last week how Henley’s incumbent MP, John Howell – no great fan of Johnson – was minded to do whatever he could to thwart Johnson’s ambitions to succeed him, the Mail has begun none too subtly stirring up dissent among members of his local association. The Mail told its readers over the weekend: “There is huge affection for Boris Johnson, who was the local MP from 2001 to 2008 when he quit after becoming London mayor. There is not the same admiration for John Howell, his successor. Howell ruffled feathers in the local Tory association with his remarks after Johnson indicated he might run for the leadership when Liz Truss’s premiership imploded. ‘I would not have been prepared to put up with that,’ Howell warned. ‘I would have left the party and stood as an independent Conservative.’”

The Mail went on to quote “one senior source” among Oxfordshire Tories – it’s funny the way they can never find anyone to say this sort of thing on the record: “People are asking all the time whether Boris is coming back as the Henley MP. He was hugely popular here. I don’t know if John Howell will run again. There are Tory members who are unhappy with him.” Of the prospect of Johnson taking his seat, Howell has gone on the record as saying: “I sincerely hope not.”

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