Ed Miliband's team has been consulting on how much of the leader's suit he should wear at any one time. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
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Commons Confidential: Labour’s great big cover-up

Plus: the Women's Institute gets political.

I have discovered that Ed Miliband is involved in a major Labour cover-up. The party’s leader, an advocate of greater transparency in British politics, is mainly keeping his jacket on in public these days. The era of shirtsleeves is largely over. A mole disclosed that a focus group was consulted on the vitally important issue of whether Red Ed should be seen in or out of the top half of his £750 Spencer Hart suit. Men weren’t especially bothered either way but, muttered the Labour insider, women voters thought the young Milibrother looked more prime ministerial in a jacket. He’s all nicely decked out in knotted pastelcoloured ties, too. The Labour leader’s office calls it smart politics.

October’s edition of WI News, the official organ of the Women’s Institute, found its way to your correspondent via a Labour MP who sheepishly confessed that his mother is a stalwart of the jam-and-Jerusalem movement. The newsletter includes an account from Bicton & Oxon WI of an ill-starred visit to the historic Upton Cressett Hall, home for 40 years to the Tory anti-Europe bore Bill Cash and now the pride and joy of his son William. The WI is upset that Cash the Younger confused their august organisation with the Townswomen’s Guild, a rival group with Suffragette roots, in his own account of the fateful day for the Daily Mail.

Upton Cressett resembled Fawlty Towers on the day in question and I’ll let the WI correspondent recount several sorry episodes: “His [Cash the Younger’s] public toilets were locked and he did not have the key, and disaster struck when a desperate lady from the Townswomen’s Guild used the house toilet and shut the front door, locking out Mr Cash and his staff. After he lost his temper and threatened to call off the visit, he got in through a window and tea and a tour of the house followed.”

Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons has reopened after a £15,000 makeover. The width of the green bar was doubled to put staff more than punching distance from MPs. The new panoramic mirror cracked after the first Westminster preening and a replacement was fitted.

Strangers’ is now included in Cask Marque, the scheme identifying watering holes for real-ale devotees. The listing is superfluous when members of the public, otherwise known as electors, are barred from popping in to enjoy a £2.85 pint of Midnight Walk.

Labour MPs still giggle after Nadine Dorries’s Scouse broadened as she pitched for opposition support in her failed bid for a deputy speakership and £36,360 subvention. My snout with the finely tuned accent detector thought the Tory from Liverpool, an endangered species if ever there was one, sounded like a cross between Cilla Black and Ricky Tomlinson. I reckon Esther McVey has honed her Scouse, too, since Dave Cameron appointed her to shout about strivers and skivers.

The Townswomen’s Guild’s brush with the keeper of Upton Cressett, by the way, ended badly. The WI correspondent reported: “While we were then looking at the garden he [Cash the Younger again] totally lost his temper again with ladies from the other group and frogmarched them off the premises.”

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR