Only pets win prizes

Observations on Westminster

In politics, as in so many walks of life, it takes only a few people to misbehave to spoil it for everyone. So have some sympathy for the rumpled backbencher whose presence generates little attention in Westminster or at home, whose majority has dwindled so far that it now resembles the share price of a British car manufacturer. Pity him, for the one event of the year meant to give him a whiff of glamour has been snatched away.

The annual House Magazine Parliamentary Awards are just like the Oscars, but with Margaret Beckett rather than Natalie Portman, and are a chance for our politicians to congratulate themselves. Voted for by MPs, the awards are usually an occasion on which backbenchers can exercise individual judgement without fear of the whips’ recriminations. But not this summer. No. This summer they’ve been naughty.

Gerry Murray, the magazine’s publisher, has written to MPs and peers to let them know the awards will not take place on their usual July date. It would, he told them, “be inappropriate to ask parliamentarians to consider candidates for the awards at this time, when the pressing matters of implementing reforms and electing a new Speaker take priority”. In other words, there will be no party until they all learn to behave.

Poor backbenchers. Now there is nothing to dream of when dealing with the hand-delivered missives from deranged constituents. Nothing to hang on for when they appear on local radio, defending some disastrous party policy that represents everything they went into politics to prevent. They know what awaits them at the election. This time next year they will have only the souvenirs of their working life: a chipped teacup stolen from the terrace, a never-to-be-updated entry in Who’s Who.

Still, they would be the first to accept that the awards cannot happen right now. To whom could parliament give a gong in this climate? Everything would have to go to Vince Cable, except perhaps a lifetime award for Chris Mullin as he retires. Anything else, and the public would storm Westminster. As each party desperately tries to outdo the others’ protestations of remorse and reform, Westminster is beginning to resemble Salem, its occupants crying out that the devil took over their bodies and then pointing to the member of their party currently unstable enough to shoulder their blame. MPs hope the crisis is temporary. Maybe it won’t even take that long for things to return to normal. Sure, the public clamours for change, but in a few months people will have forgotten all about it. Give that nice Mr Martin a peerage. He took one for the rest of us. The dim herd won’t notice.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the awards is that they have not been cancelled, merely postponed until the autumn. By then, the strange fever will have passed; parliament will be back in business and all the talk of radical reform quietly brushed back under the carpet. Our representatives can nominate those who acquitted themselves best in the expenses crisis; the ballgowns will come out, and the fun will continue. Unless, of course, we don’t forget at all. And we don’t let them forget.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

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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.