Tory MPs have Badenoch’s back as they slog it out with former Post Office chair

So who do you trust? Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, whom she and many other MPs believe will be the next leader of the Tory party? A woman whose loyalty extends primarily to herself. Even her family takes contemporaneous notes of any meeting just in case they find that memories differ. The corridors of Westminster are littered with enemies and allies whom she has stabbed in the back.

Or Henry Staunton, the former chair of the Post Office who was sacked by Kemi in January? A man who has made a career out of being made chief executive or vice-chair of many companies about which he knows comparatively little. Of whom the worst that can be said is that – like many men of his acquaintance – he has been consistently promoted above his abilities. Being “a thoroughly good chap” counts far more than competence in Staunton’s world.

So, not the greatest of choices to have to make. Though, on balance, most people would instinctively side with Henry. Primarily because those who know Kemi tend to dislike her even more than those who don’t know her. She manages to make Michael Gove look like someone you can rely on. Even when he’s out of his head on crack.

On Tuesday, the business select committee was trying to see if it could get any nearer the truth. Ten days previously, Staunton had given an interview to the Sunday Times in which he said the government had lent on him to go slow in making financial compensation to post office operatives. Kemi had come out all guns blazing. She had never said anything like this and Henry was a fantasist. Worse than that he was a total scumbag. Someone who should never have been let anywhere near the Post Office. A disgrace to himself and the country.

Staunton didn’t take this lying down. From the dregs of his email inbox he dragged out a message from Sarah Munby, a senior civil servant in Kemi’s department, suggesting he go slow on things that were going to cost the government. Cue a full-on fight. Kemi rubbishing Staunton. He was a useless old dodderer who had clearly misremembered – aka lied about – a meeting. And Henry giving as good as he got. Far from misremembering, it was all as clear as day. The conversation had been done on a nod and a wink basis with the subtext spelt out in capitals.

Liam Byrne, the select committee chair, tried to get to the bottom of the matter. Maybe getting Staunton to take the unusual step of swearing the oath before giving evidence would help to jog his memory. Maybe he would realise that Kemi’s version of events had been right all along.

Far from it. If anything Henry chose to double down. He knew exactly what had been meant because he had been so surprised that he had made notes of the conversation as soon as he had got back to his desk. By contrast, Munby had only got round to minuting her denial more than a year later after the shit had hit the fan. So which would you trust, asked an affable Staunton. A note made at the time. Or one made a year later. Mmm. Let me see …

Henry went on. He hadn’t paid any attention to the government directive. Rather he had tried to make sure the post office operatives got what was due to them. Kemi’s department had done almost nothing until the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office was shown this year. It seemed like we were arguing about the difference between static and glacial. But at a corporate level maybe these differences are significant.

Next to ask the questions was Jonathan Gullis. He wasn’t going to allow the good name of the woman who might be his next party leader – in absentia, in his case as he’s likely to lose his seat at the election – be traduced by this posh no-mark. Was it not the case that Staunton was lashing out? That he had been the subject of an 80-page disciplinary report that had formed the basis for his sacking? Gullis had clearly come well briefed by Kemi. That is precisely what she had leaked to the media outlets herself.

“Er, not at all,” said Staunton. All confused charm.

“What do you mean?” snapped Gullis. This wasn’t going to script. He had been there to showboat.

It was like this, said Staunton. There had been one paragraph about disciplinary action for something he had said that was politically incorrect. The other 79 and three-quarter pages were concerned with disciplinary action being taken about Nick Read, the current chief executive of the Post Office.

A look of panic began to cross Gullis’s face as he realised he had been stitched up by Kemi. That she had been less than truthful with him and others. Who would have guessed? So unlike her. Gullis wasn’t the first to regret sticking up for the business secretary. Nor would he be the last. Gullis began to hastily backtrack. Umm … well … I see …

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Fellow Tory Antony Higginbotham had fewer qualms. He would be loyal to Kemi to the day he died. Time and again, he tried to persuade Staunton to change his account. On every occasion, Henry would have none of this. It wasn’t long before we entered the world of the positively surreal.

The thing was, said Henry, Nick hadn’t been at all happy at the Post Office. Didn’t reckon he was paid nearly enough. Talk about tin-eared. Some subpostmasters earned only £20k a year. Others had been bankrupted and wrongfully convicted. And all Read was bothered about was his own bank balance. It’s all heart in the corporate world.

Staunton seemed oblivious to this. It was only natural that Nick had wanted more dosh. So he had seen what he could do about it with Grant Shapps. Because people like Henry always try to do their best for people like Nick. It’s how the world works. Like Oxbridge in the City. Nick had been terribly, terribly upset, Henry said. So much so that HR said he had threatened to resign.

Now we were through the looking glass. Because only an hour earlier, Read had given evidence on oath to the committee saying he had never thought about quitting.

“I took 64 board meetings,” he complained. It had all been too, too tiring for him and the board. He told the committee that he had paid for media training before the morning’s session. He should ask for his money back.

No wonder Alan Bates had earlier suggested that the Post Office was such a wreck it should be handed over to Amazon to run.