Political sketch: The missing Clegg

"Most despised man in Britain" award: an annual gong handed out to the Deputy PM on a weekly basis.

It must have been his turn to pick the kids up from school that kept Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg away from the Commons for the first public discussion of the plan to lift the anchors on the UK and move it in the general direction of the Azores.

Why else would he miss out on the humiliation that was to be poured on his head for facing both ways within 24-hours over the decision of his boss and former partner to give Europe the finger on Friday over its reorganisation plans.

Ever since the heady days of the Rose Garden, the Nick and Dave Show has been at the heart of British politics. They were regulars at all major events and a guaranteed double act in the House of Commons for all matters of importance.

But yesterday, Nick went missing.

He had been spotted leaving home earlier in the day and is believed to have made his way to his place of employment, but come 3.30pm we had the unsettling sight of seeing Dave entering the Chamber on his own and sitting Nick-less in his regular place.

Despite being just back from lunch, the absence of the Deputy PM was quickly seized on by his many enemies on both sides of the House jointly sad at the realisation that the planned drawing and quartering would have to be put off until another day -- assuming, of course, that Nick has not fled the country.

Nick has never been popular since the election; being despised by Tory MPs for stealing their jobs and their cars, and by Labour MPs for exactly the same reasons. He wasn't even that popular with his own members for deciding to take the Tory shilling and set up home with Dave.

But even all that did not prepare the House for his non-appearance as Dave was about to be held to account for saying "non" to everyone from Calais to Koblenz. Of course, it did not help Nick's case that he had been onside with the PM on Saturday saying he had to choice but to get his veto out.

As the rest of his party took a totally opposite and increasingly angry view, and Vince Cable made his usual threat to resign, Nick then proceeded to fall off his ass sometime on Saturday night picking up a quick Pauline conversion that Dave had actually been a bounder and beastly to his foreign pals.

It was against this background that the Lib Dem leader came in for what Fleet Street's Ghengis Khan wing would call "robust criticism" this morning, stopping just short of printing his home address but using plenty of photographs to go with the "Most despised man in Britain" award: an annual gong handed out on a weekly basis.

So in came Dave to yet another first. He has been many thing since he was elected but popular was not one of them, which must explain the look of nervous confusion on his face as his own side cheered him -- and this time almost meant it. Buoyed by party acclaim not to mention more than half the nation according to morning opinion polls, he basked in the rare acclaim which come to a politician who says he did what he said he would -- even though he usually denies it later.

Nick may have been absent but whether by political design or self-protection, just down the bench from the PM sat the other seniors from the Lib-Dem slice of the Coalition cake, Messrs Cable and Huhne placed neatly next to Ken Clarke, the only Tory member of the Cabinet to suggest Dave might be a little bit wrong.

Earlier we had heard reports that Speaker Bercow had put the Commons rozzers on stand-by, fearing post-prandial emotion might spill over into unparliamentary conduct but without Nick it seemed as if the Commons could not be bothered.

To be fair Ed Miliband did have a go, both index fingers out of their holsters, in a pretty polished performance of anger but even he must have seen the opinion polls. Dave did have one killer question which Ed wisely ignored: would he have signed the deal that Dave had vetoed?

As nasty Nadine Norries accused Nick of being a coward, Dave just smiled. He knew where he was but he wasn't saying.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.