Patrick Mercer pictured leaving his parliamentary office in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Patrick Mercer resigns and triggers by-election - is this Ukip's moment?

If Farage chooses to stand, his party could have a genuine chance of winning a Westminster seat for the first time.

After the decision of the Standards Committee to suspend him from parliament for six months over cash-for-questions allegations, former Tory MP Patrick Mercer, who currently sits as an independent, has just announced his resignation. He told reporters on College Green:

I'm an ex-soldier and I believe that when I've got something wrong, you've got to fess up and get on with it, no point in shilly-shallying, what's happened has happened and I'm ashamed of it.

Therefore, I'm going to do what I can to put it right for the constituency of Newark, I'm a Newark man, I haven't lived in Newark for any political expediency, to put it right for my family, my wife, who's been under such pressure for the last year, and to make it quite clear that I argue with nothing that the committee has said, or may not have said, because I still don't know officially what has been said.

But with a great heaviness of heart, and I'm hoping that the people of Newark in Nottinghamshire will be able to tolerate me in the future, I'm hoping that they will, I'm going to resign my seat in God's county of Nottinghamshire in the town of Newark, and I hope that my successor, who has been well and carefully chosen, will be the Conservative candidate. Thank you very much indeed, ladies and gentlemen, thank you.

We can now look forward to what politicos have been craving for months: a by-election in a Conservative-held seat that Ukip could conceivably win. Nigel Farage has already hinted that he is prepared to stand, provided that the contest does not take place on the same day as the European elections. Since it is too late for the writ to be moved in time for 22 May, this condition will be met (the earliest possible date for the by-election is 5 June).

Mercer currently has a comfortable majority of 16,152 (31.5 per cent) in the seat, which the Tories have held since 2001 (Labour won it in 1997), and Ukip polled just 3.8 per cent, finishing fourth, in 2010. But the dramatic surge in support for the party since then, and the circumstances of Mercer's resignation, mean an upset cannot be ruled out. In last year's county council elections, Ukip won 17.1 per cent of the vote in the Newark & Sherwood District. If Farage does go for the seat, harnessing the momentum that would follow a Ukip victory in the European elections, his party could have a genuine chance of winning a Westminster seat for the first time.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.