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Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, Rishi

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

Photo: The New European

Rishi Sunak was in his constituency in Richmond, North Yorkshire last weekend – his first trip there since becoming PM. Although he has a £2m Grade II-listed retreat to bed down in – complete with a swimming pool that costs £14,000 a year to heat – Sunak’s substantial majority has meant, until now, that he could take re-election for granted and only visit when needs must.

Now Mandrake hears that the prime minister has been informed in no uncertain terms by his local party association that he needs to make himself more visible in his constituency and should not be lulled into a false sense of security by his 63.6% vote share in the last general election.

“That majority is something of a mirage as it represents an uneasy alliance of Tories who have been divided among themselves ever since 2016 when the traditional side of the party in Yorkshire sided with David Cameron and William Hague – Sunak’s predecessor – and saw the country’s future in the EU,” says my informant in the constituency. “When Sunak came out for Brexit, he made it very much about him giving his personal word to his constituents that it would work out for the best. I can see a lot of disillusioned Tories switching to the Lib Dems next time around or just not bothering to vote.”

The sense of buyer’s remorse that’s worrying the local Tory association was heightened when the regional chamber of commerce reported this month that more than half of their manufacturers are experiencing difficulties exporting and importing (53% in both cases) and the same percentage complain that transport costs are a problem, with almost as many (51%) pointing to customs duties or levies as an issue, and 47% hit by border disruption.

Scenting blood, local Labour activists have been digging through Sunak’s old 2016 referendum literature and it’s telling how some of it has already been finding its way into the national press. One, illustrated with a picture of a beaming Sunak, had him assuring his constituents “our nation will be freer, fairer and more prosperous outside the EU. Outside the EU, we can decide our own immigration policy, ensure our own laws and courts are sovereign, and enhance our position as a dynamic, outward-looking trading economy…”

Equally embarrassing were the bold promises he made to his local farmers of a better life outside the EU and the declaration that “Canada, South Korea and South Africa all trade freely with Europe without surrendering their independence. As one of Europe’s largest customers, I see no sensible reason why we could not achieve a similar agreement…”

The very concept of non-tariff barriers was one that was notably absent from the debate at the time, and the fact Sunak saw fit to get into it demonstrated how ignorant he was of what they entailed.

Top government grandees once queued up to pay court to life peer Michelle Mone, but now, with allegations she made tens of millions from a start-up PPE firm after lobbying ministers to award it a contract in the pandemic, she has become Baroness No Mates.

This was clear enough when I got in touch with the Cabinet Office to inquire why she still describes herself on the Lords website as “an entrepreneurship tsar appointed by the prime minister to lead a government review on supporting business start-ups in disadvantaged communities”.

Not wanting to talk about her at all, the Cabinet Office hastily referred me to the Department for Work and Pensions, where a flustered spokesperson said: “As far as I am aware, she has no current role. Her appointment was several administrations ago. I have been at the department since 2018 and I have no knowledge of her.”

If the Lords Commissioner for Standards – and, for that matter, the National Crime Agency – find her guilty of wrongdoing, she will almost certainly have to be booted out of the Lords.

It may not be everyone’s idea of a great night out on the town, but I am hearing of repeated sightings of Michael Gove dining at various illustrious venues in the capital with the Brexit grandee Lord Frost. They might appear to be an odd couple, but they have of course a lot in common politically. They are also old Oxford contemporaries and have both lately been through marriage break-ups – although Frost has since remarried.

Frost would do well to heed how Liz Truss’s aides described Gove after he knifed her in her final days – a troubled and dark soul with a streak of sadism in him. As David Cameron, Boris Johnson and now Lady Mone could certainly attest, there is an all-too-familiar pattern to Gove’s supposed friendships: devotion followed by disownment.

Mandrake reported last week how the Daily Mail was trying to build bridges with Labour now it sees victory for them at the next election as a grim inevitability. This is requiring the paper’s owner, Lord Rothermere, to swallow some bitter pills, not least in relation to Sir Keir Starmer’s commitment to abolish non-dom tax status. His lordship also detests wind farms, which Labour sees as a vital energy source and is about to try to overturn, with like-minded Tories, the virtual moratorium on building them.

The Mail has been hysterical about wind farms for years, running headlines such as “Wind farms ‘could CAUSE global warming’ by heating up the planet’s surface and taking up huge amounts of space”, and “Offshore wind farms built to provide clean energy to the UK could be the ‘final nail in the coffin’ for more than 1,000 endangered seabirds, RSPB warns.”

Over the weekend, Mail readers must have been startled to see a totally non-judgmental – even positive – piece about how Labour was backing the “wind revolution”. A major landowner, Rothermere, along with the late Duke of Edinburgh, used to complain to anyone who would listen how he found wind farms unsightly.

Nobody spoke more movingly the summer before last about the plight of the people Britain left behind in Afghanistan than Tom Tugendhat. “The phone calls I am still receiving, the text messages that I have been answering, putting people in touch with our people in Afghanistan, reminds us that we are connected,” said the Tory MP, who had served in the country. “Afghanistan is not a faraway country about which we know little… That connection links us also to our European partners, to our neighbours and our international friends…”

So far, the government resettlement schemes for Afghan refugees has brought in only a paltry 7,000 eligible Afghans to the UK. The schemes came under scrutiny for failing to prioritise the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan, which amounted to what a House of Commons committee described as a “betrayal of our allies”. The number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan crossing the Channel in small boats has risen fivefold this year.

As Rishi Sunak commits himself to cutting down on all immigration and gets tougher on people attempting to cross the Channel by boat, I wonder how well Tugendhat, who now serves as security minister, sleeps at night. 

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