Evil twin?

Poor Gordon - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins. What happens if

Something of an eventful fortnight behind me. The weekend before last I had to pick up the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. This involved flying to Salzburg – cue much head twitching and feeble attempts at self-hypnosis in various bits of Gatwick. Eventually my imagination simply became so exhausted by picturing smiley things and projection screens and giving air gunners encouraging hugs that it could no longer picture my mangled remains dangling from a tree, ready to traumatise a passing rescue worker. At least not clearly enough to prevent me from boarding the plane and then carrying out every single obsessive-compulsive safety ritual I have – along with a few I invented as we bounced along. I’m sure I was a joy to all observers – tapping, nodding, shuddering and humming away like a shouldn’t-ever-be-out-patient.

Salzburg itself is lovely – delightful graveyard. The prize business involved wearing evening dress at most times of day, staring at canapés and being regularly assailed by classical music. All of which was so cultured, civilised and frankly unbelievable that it became pleasant, rather than nerve-wracking. The Austrian Minister for Culture is charming and actually cares about culture and the Austrian Prime Minister gave me cake – while I tried to assure him my own Prime Minister would have taken my cake and told me it would be given to the destitute and cake-needy before sneaking it into the cake trough of a cake-spattered man in a mink cake-eating suit. Poor Gordon, though - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins, after all. What happens if we get the evil twin? I’ve watched more than enough Hammer horror films to know this is surely a risk.

Of course, the day after landing back from Salzburg (and being almost delighted enough by my continued existence to stay in the Ibis Euston without feeling nauseous – honestly, a sign in the foyer says it’s all about European values and “the breath of France” – France has serious internal problems if its breath smells of Ibis, that’s all I can say.. sorry that’s far too long a parenthesis and this is simply adding to it) I had to jump into my first preview performance for the Fringe.

And I’ve been running the show ever since – which is what I now choose to call a lovely holiday. I work one hour a day (unless I’m doing some other bit of funny stuff, which might bring that up to a whole hour and a half) and potter for the rest of the time, grinning like a Muppet. Thus far the ladies and gentlemen have been splendid, the venue has been only just hot enough to melt bronze and nothing apocalyptic has happened with any wiring.

I have now passed into that very special state of tiredness that only the Fringe produces – the sort where you can endlessly perform magic tricks on yourself. For example, approximately eight times a day I open my travel wallet with its central panel flipped left instead of right and then wonder pathetically where all my money and cards have gone. My show this year involves a mug of tea which I managed to put in my bag yesterday when I left The Stand. I then opened said bag on the train going home, noticed the tea – still, amazingly, in the mug – lifted it out of my bag and drank it. Which allowed fellow passengers to assume that a) I am unhinged b) I am a bad, beverage-related mime c) I am an unhinged and bad children’s entertainer. Things can only get odder and I can hardly wait.

You can see AL Kennedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.