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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.