As the criminal investigation into how Michelle Mone allegedly enriched herself on the back of dodgy PPE contracts continues, “sources” close to Michael Gove are doing everything they can to distance him from the lingerie tycoon.
The defence they anonymously put forward in the Sunday Times over the weekend is that Gove was “bullied and hectored” by Lady Mone and had complained that she was “a right pain in the arse”. This contrasts with what Gove told Kay Burley last month on Sky News, when he suggested that when his long-term friend contacted him he had said “great” and immediately referred her bid to provide what turned out to be unfit PPE to the “right channel”.
This is not, of course, the first time that a “source close to Gove” has been quoted in this particular paper saying things that have been politically helpful for him – anonymous sources over the years have touted him to take over the health and foreign office briefs and have frequently praised his cabinet performances.
It is certainly understandable that this particular “source” – assuming there is more than one – should be keen to distance Gove from Mone. It has been discovered that an offshore trust from which she and her children benefit had received almost £29m from PPE Medpro after it won the contract. She had failed to declare any financial interest in the outfit.
Gove, who has announced he intends to stand again for his Surrey Heath constituency at the next election, became close to Mone while in David Cameron’s set. With his customary good judgment, Cameron had, as prime minister, ennobled her in 2015.
Boris Johnson’s decision to contest his Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency at the next election is at least in part an admission he couldn’t find anything better to do and wanted to try to keep hold of his parliamentary salary.
Although he recently met with Rupert Murdoch, I am told the former prime minister sees a return to his previous trade of journalism as infra dig and very much a last resort.
Johnson has been picking up a few quid here and there making speeches, but a big international job of the kind he’d hoped for – he had genuinely harboured ambitions to become the next secretary-general of Nato, in addition, of course, to being “world king” – remains elusive.
Headhunters are currently struggling to find jobs for the large number of Tory MPs who plan to step down at the next election, but former prime ministers with dubious reputations are proving even harder to place these days.
Tony Blair has his institute and Gordon Brown the job at the World Health Organization, but it’s telling that the last four Conservative residents of No 10 – David Cameron, Theresa May, Johnson and Liz Truss – still have little more to say about themselves in their bios than that they are “former prime ministers”.
These are trying times for Eric Pickles who, as chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, has to try to ensure former ministers and senior civil servants don’t too obviously cash in on their periods in government.
The good news is he has just managed to get Guto Harri, Boris Johnson’s last director of communications, to make it clear he is no longer working in No 10 on his profile at Chartwell Speakers, even if on the Atlantic Speaker Bureau website it still states he is working for Johnson in the centre of government.
More challenging for Lord Pickles has been getting the health secretary-turned-all-round-entertainer Matt Hancock to obey the rules. He has rebuked him for accepting a gig on SAS: Who Dares Wins without first clearing it with the committee. Hancock reported last week it made him £45,000 for 80 hours. He and Pickles have yet to address the issue of his I’m a Celebrity… jaunt.
This pair are of course small fry compared with Johnson, on whom Pickles is keeping a close eye in terms of the work he has been taking on. In telling Hancock “the rules are clear that an application is required for all outside roles”, he was almost certainly laying down a marker, too, for the former prime minister.
The shortest-serving and most catastrophic prime minister of all time, Liz Truss, does have one regret. Nothing to do with the £30bn cost of her mini-budget to the taxpayer, but the fact she never achieved what she saw as her full potential on Twitter.
“She said given time she believed her homespun wisdom would see her eclipsing even her predecessor, Boris Johnson, on Twitter,” one Whitehall toiler wearily tells me. “It really got to her that she got nowhere near that.”
Truss made it to 709,000 followers on the social networking site, compared with Johnson’s 4.17m. Even Theresa May and David Cameron have managed to make it past the million mark.
Wittering away these days about her visits to outfits such as Peerless Plastics and Speedbird Promotions in her South West Norfolk constituency, Truss is now unlikely to see the kind of explosive growth she and her close friend Kwasi Kwarteng once promised for the country reflected in her follower count. Perhaps this is one of the reasons she has hired former home office SpAd (special adviser) Jonathan Isaby as her new head of press, although as a former chief of both the Tufton Street lobby group the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the pro-Leave BrexitCentral website, Isaby is deeply rooted to many of the policies that led Truss to calamity in the first place.
He notched up 400,000 air miles without bagging any deals while international trade secretary, and now Liam Fox is on his travels again. He has lately owned up to visiting Tangier, Charleston and Dubai within three weeks, at a cost of £16,200. The trips were paid for by, respectively, the Amadeus Institute think tank, the Charleston Meeting and Abraham Accords.
Having failed to bag a role on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Fox’s jollies are at least keeping him busy.
Of all the noble causes for the Daily Mail to take up, the right of Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax to cling on to a family fortune founded on slavery in Barbados would not seem to be either the most obvious or pressing.
Still, the paper devoted the best part of three pages to it the other day, and what was startling was how David Jones made no secret of the fact he was uneasy with the assignment.
“As a writer who abhors racism in all its forms, I find it uncomfortable to defend Mr Drax, an Old Etonian former Coldstream Guard on the right of the Conservative Party,” Jones wrote, later stating he would be unwilling to “readily die in a ditch for him”.
Jones made a half-hearted attempt over three pages to stick up for Drax, who faces demands from the island’s ruling Labour Party to compensate for “the sins of his forebears”. He claimed Drax’s ancestors were “relatively enlightened owners who believed well-treated slaves worked more efficiently”.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but the Mail’s proprietor, Lord Rothermere, could have wanted this profoundly embarrassing piece published. Rothermere and Drax are old mates; the pair own a vast amount of the county of Dorset and are near neighbours. Drax owns 13,870 acres and Rothermere 4,700.