The Invisible (Tory) Man. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
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Commons Confidential: Jeremy Hunt takes to the wards

Plus: Who on earth is Gareth Johnson?

Nurses robbed of wage rises have a new little helper in the wards: the robber himself, Jeremy Hunt. The Health Secretary boasts of working on the NHS front line in his Surrey constituency. A local Tory leaflet carries a photograph of him in a fluorescent pinny, heroically pushing a trolley. Hunt, who is about as popular as MRSA with staff, says he volunteers on Fridays at the Haslemere, Royal Surrey and Frimley Park hospitals. He finds the work “extremely rewarding” – a phrase that NHS staff never use about their employment under Hunt’s tenure.

Tough guy, Tony Benn. The former party chair Ian McCartney, the diminutive one-time leader of Little Labour, recalled going to talk about flooding in the Kent coalfield with Benn, who was then the energy secretary. Benn broke his ankle falling down the stairs on his way out of the Department of Energy building. The lefty hobbled in to cabinet and went to hospital later. Whenever the pair subsequently met, Benn would joke to McCartney, “Don’t come near me.” Whatever else he did, Benn nailed the old canard that lefties lack humour.

Have you heard of Gareth Johnson? I hadn’t. Apparently he’s a Tory MP. In four years, I can’t recall seeing or hearing the invisible member for Dartford in the House of Commons. Perhaps our paths just never cross. Further investigation has discovered that he is lobby fodder, hardly ever rebelling, and tops up his £66,396 salary with an £800 monthly sideline as a solicitor. How many more nonentities are there in the place?

Grumbling is heard in the Labour ranks after a one-line whip was imposed for a vote against disability cuts but there was a two-liner on badgers. Old lags mutter the welfare of people should be a higher priority than that of animals. True, but saving Mr Brock is a cost-free manifesto pledge – radicalism on the cheap. The disabled come with a price tag and, my unhappy lefty snout complained, they don’t generate as much sympathy. Which is tragic if true.

Leafing through the leatherbound book signed by guest speakers at Press Gallery luncheons in the Mock-Gothic Fun Palace, an informant deciphered on the front page the scribble of Richard Beeching, the British Railways chair who shut thousands of stations. Presumably Dr Beeching axed the previous volume.

Adam Afriyie has eclectic tastes. A snout spied the Tory drinking champagne and Diet Coke at the plush Corinthia Hotel, close to Westminster. I hasten to add for the benefit of the snooty Nicholas Soames, a puffed-up grandee who seems to treat the council-estate-made millionaire as an inferior, that Afriyie sipped from separate glasses.

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

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 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.