Commons Confidential: The incredible shrinking Tories

Plus: Chris “the Jackal” Grayling's party piece.

Chris “the Jackal” Grayling drinks less fizzy water at receptions than it may first appear to the casual observer or lurking photographer hoping to picture the shaven-headed Injustice Secretary enjoying the high life. At the Tory jamboree in Manchester, a snout let me in on the cabinet minister’s secret party piece. The Jackal, whispered the eagle-eyed informant, swiftly pours champagne into a tumbler so that it looks as if he’s sipping abstemiously from a glass of eau de tap, when a quick taste would reveal Pol Roger. Grayling poses in a hairshirt, but the Jackal is, in that old northern phrase, all fur coat and no knickers.

It’s often the little things that tell a big story. Relations between Ed Miliband and Unite remain in deep freeze. The union, I gather, sent a letter of complaint to Iain McNicol, the party’s general secretary, after an apparent discourtesy at Labour’s jamboree. A party apparatchik summoned Miliband and his deputy, Harriet Harman, from the stage when Len McCluskey, Unite’s leader, was called to speak. If the disappearance was intended to prevent Red Ed and Hattie Harperson being linked or snapped with Red Len, I reckon it was a bit late. I’ve heard that the Tories clocked the Labourunion link a while back.

The unreconstructed Beast of Bolsover – the Labour MP and ex-miner Dennis Skinner – was awarded an immaculate “red rating” of 100 in a tatty pack of “Top Trumped by the Unions” cards produced by the Tories. He’ll no doubt wear his score as a badge of honour, as might Ben Bradshaw, who was judged the least left on Miliband’s benches, with a pale-pink rating of 29. The most damning so-called red fact that the desperate Cons could disinter about the Exeter MP was that Armando Iannucci once claimed that @BenPBradshaw’s tweets were “very dull”.

Cameron’s spin doctor Craig Oliver informed me that he isn’t a member of the Tory party. If Cameron can’t persuade his Downing Street mouthpiece to sign up, it’s little wonder that the Tories are Britain’s fastest-shrinking political party, with membership close to half the 253,000 that Dave inherited in 2005. In the unlikely event that the Cons affiliated to the TUC, the right-whingers would be only the ninthlargest trade union.

The matchbox-sizedCommons Speaker, John Bercow, must feel secure in his job, because he’s started to crack jokes about his lack of height. “Three previous speakers were shorter than me,” Bercow told a gathering in his tied apartment. “Or at least they were when beheaded.”

Labour’s Scottish contingent inWestminster has taken to referring to the SNP regime in Edinburgh as the “fish government”: it is run by (say this next bit out loud) Salmond and Sturgeon.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Chris “the Jackal” Grayling making his speech at the 2013 Conservative Party conference. Photo: Getty

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.