Cameron struggles with the Bullingdon question

"We all do stupid things when we're young," says Cameron. Why then "zero tolerance" for the looters?

David Cameron was his usual assured self on this morning's Today programme until Evan Davis asked him the "Bullingdon question". Wasn't the infamous Oxford club (whose idea of a good night out was characterised by Evelyn Waugh as beating a fox to death with champagne bottles) just like the gangs that rioted? An audibly uncomfortable Cameron replied: "we all do stupid things when we're young - and we should learn the lessons." It's notable that Cameron used the same formulation during the 2005 Tory leadership election when he was asked about rumours of past drug use. Indeed, he previously responded to a question about that Bullingdon Club photo by similarly claiming: "we do things when we're young and we deeply regret them". It sounded like an admission of guilt then and it sounds like an admission of guilt now.

But Cameron refused to accept that there was any comparison to be made between the behaviour of the club's members and the rioters. The riots, he said, were "very well organised", which rather invites the response: is disorganised violence acceptable? Cameron's claim that he never saw a restaurant smashed up will also be challenged by some of his university contemporaries. But it was his assertion that "we all do stupid things when we're young" (in fact, some will reply, not all of us) that will prove most damaging. As Cameron said, we learn with age. Why then hand down the most draconian sentences possible? Cameron was in danger of appearing to suggest that it was one rule for the Oxford elite and another for the rest of the society.

This is one subject that the PM would rather never be asked about again. But after his faltering response today, it is certain that he will be.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.