The coming of the Maily Express

It makes sense - the two newspapers have printed the same stuff with different fonts for a while now

Talk of a merger between the Daily Mail and Daily Express seems a mixed blessing for those of us who wouldn't ordinarily read either. While it might seem like good news to be rid of at least one of them, how powerful would the resulting über-tabloid become?

It's probably best not to fall into the trap of imagining the worst-case scenario – a monstrous great politically incorrect Death Star of a newspaper blasting out lasers of bile across the galaxy, journalists dressed in scary black uniforms . . . because that's exactly the kind of catastrophistic panic-porn those papers like wallowing in.

No, the reality would be more mundane, less scary. Instead of a gigantic, slavering right-wing chimera, a Brundlefly with a cruel streak for minorities lurking on the shelves in WHSmith, the Maily Express could just end up being a rather dull, mid-market tabloid grasping for the same waning readership.

Instead of two sets of headlines panicking about "them" coming over here and taking our jobs, there would be just one. At least we'd only have to avoid one publication, rather than two.

After the sudden death of the Daily Sport and Sunday Sportwhich leaves a gaping void on the news-stands for upskirt photos of minor celebrities and very little else – it would be another blow to the newspaper industry. Would it be a sign that the tide really is turning, and the inkies running out of time? Those of us who harbour dreams of having gainful employment through the purchase of printed words on paper might like to hope not, but what if this is the second domino falling over?

If the Express and Mail really did merge, I don't think the Express would end up tremendously well represented, given the relative size of its circulation and readership. Just as Spitting Image's David Owen puppet told David Steel their amalgamated party would have "one name from your party and one name from mine . . . from mine, Social Democratic, from yours, Party . . ." you can't help seeing the resultant publication as being anything other than the Daily Mail. That would be disappointing from the point of view of losing the Express name from the news-stands, given its history as Britain's most popular newspaper for decades; but then again, the Express of those days died a long time ago.

Of course, this is all just idle speculation. Why would the Mail want to do anything other than see the Express wither on the vine and die away as its readership gets older? Why would the Express want to admit defeat and couple itself to the Mail as very much the junior partner? None of that seems to make any sense, but perhaps there is some logic in it: with 2.7 million potential readers, any joint force would be in a healthy position.

The two newspapers have been pretty much the same story in slightly different fonts for a while now. It's a sadness, perhaps, that there isn't room for a Daily Express that is markedly different from its main mid-market competitor, but maybe that's just the way these things are going. Maybe we really are going to face a future with fewer national newspapers, and maybe we're just going to have to get used to it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.