Gaffe-prone Gavin Barwell is feeling the political heat this week from a couple of political big beasts – and former Tory chums – as he stands accused of leaking a confidential memo on Brexit which had been handed to his boss, the interim Prime Minister Theresa May, by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Barwell had been MP for Croydon Central for seven years until he was trounced at June’s General Election. But he then walked into a cushty job as the PM’s chief of staff.
The former Croydon Tory councillor has quickly shown himself to be out of his depth, and as his party continues to fight among themselves over the implementation of Brexit – a continuation of Conservative divisions over Europe that go back more than 20 years – Barwell appears to have put his foot right in it in the row between the Remainers and the anti-EU faction within the Cabinet.
“BORIS AND GOVE PLOT TO HIJACK NUMBER 10” shrieked the front-page headline of yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, based on a top-secret memo which Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and Gove had drafted together and, according to the newspaper was “handed to chief of staff”, meaning Barwell.
A Downing Street source – thought by many Westminster insiders to be Barwell – told the paper that Johnson and environment secretary Gove “had conducted a ‘soft coup’ and that Mrs May was ‘their Downing Street hostage’.”
Johnson and Gove represent a surprising partnership, since it is just a year since Gove torpedoed his supposed chum’s ambitions to become leader of the Conservative Party. They appear to have been forced together in the cause of securing a “hard Brexit”, amid concerns that the Tory Chancellor, Philip Hammond, and other Remainers are trying to steer the Government away from what is growing clearer by the day will be a massive disaster for the country.
Both May and Barwell have previously supported remaining in the EU.
The timing of the leak of the memo – dubbed the Merlot Memo today because it was written by Gove and Johnson over a couple of convivial glasses of red wine – is significant, because it comes at the end of a week in which the calls for Johnson to be sacked as Foreign Secretary for trashing the country’s reputation abroad as thoroughly as his former Bullingdon Club mates ever trashed posh restaurants when at Oxford, and over his callously crass mishandling of the case of young British mother, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being held on trumped up charges in an Iranian prison.
Barwell, or whoever leaked the memo, may have thought that if Johnson was exposed as plotting against the Prime Minister over Brexit, then his term in office might be terminated.
But the news has seen yet another run on the value of the pound, and has exposed the Prime Minister as being even more enfeebled, just before a crucial week in parliament when the Tory Government could lose a couple of key votes on Brexit. Following the resignations from the Cabinet of Priti Patel and Michael Fallon, and with pressure on her deputy Damian Green, May’s Government appears to be falling apart by the day.
The gruesome twosome’s demands in the Merlot Memo have been widely criticised.
The Guardian newspaper quotes a Cabinet member as saying, “It is not surprising that they [Gove and Johnson] would express their view. But what is surprising is that they would write this down and use this kind of language in a letter to the prime minister.
“Some have described it as Orwellian, and it is.
“It is not helpful when people try and press their views in untransparent way.”
And in today’s Daily Mail, the finger of suspicion over the leak is pointed firmly at Barwell.
Quoting unnamed sources – though Sarah Vine, Gove’s wife, works as a columnist for the paper – Andrew Pierce, the paper’s political commentator, writes that after drafting their Brexit demands (he fails to mention whether it took two bottles of Merlot, or three), Gove and Johnson, “agreed that the document should be handed personally to the PM’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell…
“Inevitably, after the leak, fingers are being pointed at Barwell, a passionate Remainer.
“He is bitter about Brexit which he blames for the loss of his Croydon seat to Labour at the General Election in June. He is also close to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood who, like most civil servants, has never wanted Britain to leave the EU.”
Pierce’s piece says that apart from the Prime Minister, Barwell was the only person to have access to the memo in Downing Street.
Certainly, the leak does have the hallmarks of another Barwell gaffe: only Barwell, in an effort to shore-up the position of his boss, could manage to make May even weaker, while jeopardising his own job prospects.
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