Fright night: George Osborne outside No 11 on 27 October. Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Osborne’s nightmare on Downing Street

George’s back should be bleeding from the number of Tory knives plunged into him. 

Amid the talk of Labour’s Jim Murphy seeking a future in the Scottish Parliament, speculation grows in Scotland over whether it’ll be back to the future for Alex Salmond. The SNP separatist brushes aside questions about his possible (probable?) return to the UK parliament. My spy tells me the Tartan Chieftain is taking the temperature in the Westminster seat of Gordon, which overlaps with his Holyrood estate of Aberdeenshire East. Lib Dem grandee Malcolm Bruce retires next May and the 6,748 majority is considered vulnerable, with the SNP the runner-up last time around. The move would get Salmond out of SNP queen Nicola Sturgeon’s hair in Edinburgh and the capital of Scotland’s colonial occupiers isn’t without attractions for the former first minister. He seemed to enjoy London’s bars and betting shops when last an MP.

George Osborne’s back should be bleeding from the number of Tory knives plunged into him. Con MPs mumble darkly that the only long-term plan of the party’s chief election strategist is to manoeuvre his cronies into position so he’ll be crowned king when David Cameron is ousted or abdicates. The current target of the Tory disenchanted is Rupert Harrison, so posh he makes Trust Fund “Sir” George seem common. Harrison, Osborne’s brain at the Treasury, isn’t your run-of-the-mill Old Etonian like Dave or Boris. He’s a former head boy. The whisper is that a safe seat is Rupe’s for the asking. The Tory unfavoured, forced to knock on doors for years to secure a constituency, are resentful. One seething MP recalled canvassing a grand house in west London when the door was answered by a younger Rupert, who replied that he was voting Green.

I’m told vice-chair was the Labour role that ex-postie Alan Johnson, now promoting his second volume of memoirs, declined to remain a man of letters. Ed Miliband hasn’t given up on a one-time home secretary who speaks human. Johnson promised to do the rounds of TV and radio studios for the party in the new year. In the scrap for blue-collar votes, the mailman has the edge on Ukip’s Nigel Farage, as well as Tory posh boys. Johnson was heading for work when the City slicker Farage was reeling home from the pub.

A snout’s eye was drawn to a notice at the peers’ entrance to parliament listing locations of defibrillators. In the House of Cronies, the dead wood resists not only reform but the call to God’s waiting room.

Vanquished David Miliband keeps his cards close to his chest in New York, yet remains in touch with British soulmates. Asked what the elder Milibrother thinks of the younger’s performance, a prominent Labour figure who saw him recently replied: “David feels sorry for Ed.” 

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 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

Niina Tamura
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“Anyone can do it, I promise you!”: meet the BBC’s astronaut-ballerina

Why science needs to be more open to women, minorities - and ballet.

Whether dancing on stage with the English National Ballet or conducting an experiment for her PhD in quantum physics, 29 year-old Merritt Moore often appears a model of composure. But in last Sunday's opening episode of BBC2's Astronauts: do you have what it takes? we got to see what happens when high-achievers like Merritt hit breaking point.

Merritt is one of 12 candidates attempting to win the approval of Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station. Along with her fellow competitors, who include mountaineers and fighter pilots, the dancer has had to face a series of gruelling tasks designed to measure her potential to operate well in space; from flying a helicopter, to performing a blood test on her own arm.

Many of these tasks left Merritt far outside her comfort zone. “I’ve only failed my driving test three times and crashed every car I’ve gotten into - but I think helicopters are different?!” she joked nervously before setting off to perform her first-ever helicopter-hover. Yet after a shaky start, her tenacious personality seemed to pull her through. “I’m good at being incredibly persistent and I don’t give up,” she told the space psychologist when asked to name her strengths.

Merritt also believes it is persistence (and hours of practice) that have allowed her to excel in two disciplines which are typically seen as requiring opposite traits: ballet and science. While studying for her PhD at Oxford, she has continued to perform as a professional dancer around the world. It's a stunning feat by any measure, and when I talk to her on the phone this weekend I ask whether it’s only possible because she’s some kind of genius? “No!” she exclaims, with a winning mix of genuine shock and self-deprecation. “I’m as far from a genius or a natural dancer as you can get - everyday I just feel like flailing mess! My thought process is that if I can do it anyone can do it, I promise you!”

But there is one thing that Merritt thinks might be holding back others from pursuing a mixed career like hers – and that’s the way the scientific world is run.

“They kind of self-select themselves,” she says of many science-professionals she’s met. "You get some people who are not incredibly understanding of those who perhaps approach [physics] in a different way, or who need a different type of schedule," she says. "They look down on people who are different from themselves, which is really difficult; I think that’s why women have difficulties, and I think that's why minorities have difficulties."

A report from the Royal Society on Diversity in Science would appear to support Merritt’s conclusions. It showed that women are significantly underrepresented in senior scientific roles, and that black and minority ethnic graduates are less likely to go on to work in science than their white peers.

So how can these trends be reversed? For Merritt the answer lies as much in schools as it does with targeted scholarships and support groups. Science education needs to be re-branded, she says, so that thinking creatively is actively encouraged from a young age; “It makes no sense to divide it up and say everyone either has an analytic mind or a creative mind." Simply leaning a set of very technical facts from a textbook drives her “bonkers” - but “when there’s passion behind something then anything is possible.”

If she could one thing about physics education, Merritt says she would switch things up so that the “exciting bits” get taught first - such as the latest thoughts on quantum computing or DNA repair. Then if students do choose to continue, they’ll know why they need to study the boring, rigorous parts too. “You’re like right, I need to learn about a harmonic oscillator because that’s how I’m going to understand this quantum computer.”

More cross-fertilisation between science and arts could also help the ballet world, she believes. “I can visualise my centre of mass, how gravity is working on different parts of my body, and how the torque effects my turns – and I think that’s a massive help,” Merritt says of her dancing.

But that’s far from all. When performing she often finds herself thinking about the more bizarre and “mind boggling” sides to physics: “Why is there all this dark matter in the Universe? What is that?! - when that’s going on in my mind, my legs become free because it means I’m not thinking about whether I look bad, or if something is right or not. I’m just inspired - and I want my dancing to be inspiring rather than self-critical all the time.”

Focusing on actions rather than self-image was definitely something Merritt's parents encouraged from a young age. Her dad’s work as an entertainment lawyer in LA meant he was particularly alert to the stereotypes that were being laid on young girls. And, as a result, Merritt and her sister grew up without TV or fashion magazines. Her dad was even initially worried about the mirrors in ballet classrooms

But self-criticism is also very hard to avoid when your antics are being broadcast to the nation on Sunday night TV.

“When you see yourself on screen you just feel incredibly vulnerable,” she says, “they are getting the raw emotions of how you’re reacting to stuff that you’ve never done before in your life!”. What Merritt’s episode one journey showed however, is that knowing yourself makes it easier to bouceback from nerves and self-doubt. And that perhaps more of us should be encouraged to believe that you don't have to choose between the stars on stage or the ones in space. 

The next episode of BBC2's Astronauts: have you got what it takes? will air on Sunday 27th August at 9pm.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.