Tories have been ordered to be full of ho, ho, ho this Christmas. Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: A shocking secret Santa

Plus: an unexpected gnome.

The Chancer of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is playing Scrooge by threatening permanent austerity, yet word went out from Tory HQ for MPs and candidates to be full of ho, ho, ho. So Andrew Atkinson, the Conservative challenger to Labour’s Ian Lucas in Wrexham, donned the full outfit to play Santa in the Welsh town.

Festivities were moved to the Pentre Gwyn Community Centre after the usual venue, Kingsley Circle, was shut by council cuts. Atkinson is a hard-line deficit slasher so his sack is no doubt full of redundancies, payday loan forms and bedroom tax penalties. The music teacher playing carols nearly fainted with shock at the Tory’s cheek. Lucas needs to buy his wife, for it was her, smelling salts for Christmas.

Lord Palmer’s family pile, Manderston in Berwickshire, boasts the world’s only silver staircase. The convivial aristo, scion of the biscuit family and hereditary peer, is friendly with Labour MPs over the border in Northumberland.

I detect a touch of the Downton in the relationship. The Old Etonian once invited, I hear, Blyth Valley’s rough-hewn Ronnie Campbell to polish the banister. Campbell, an ex-miner, was equally unable to assist when Palmer inquired if the MP knew anybody willing to clean the Edwardian stately home.

The tea room talk is of the strained friendship between Margaret Hodge and Tessa Jowell. The pair were sisters in arms but the London mayoralty has come between them. Jowell’s tossed her hat in the ring while the chair of the public accounts committee hedges her bets. The influential post in the Commons is occupied by an opposition MP, so should Labour win the election, Hodge would be out of one job and free to run for another. Every cloud has a silver lining. For somebody.

Tory, Lib Dem and Labour whips have one thing in common: contempt for the Tory minister Matt Hancock. I hear he’s so despised that the party enforcers share text messages about him. A Tory I’ll decline to identify showed Labour whips a text ordering Tory MPs to huddle around Hancock in the Commons to signal support.

On the edge of Harold Wilson’s grave sits a small, red-hatted gnome. The political editor of the FT, George Parker, spied the garden sentry on a visit to the Isles of Scilly. The figure is, presumably, a tribute to the Labour premier’s dig at the tax-dodging “gnomes of Zürich”, the Swiss bankers. When Cameron shuffles off this mortal coil, a tin of baked beans would be appropriate to commemorate food banks.

What attracted the BBC’s Paul “Are you going to resign, minister?” Lambert to Ukip? There’s the £100,000-plus salary and that’s more than double the money Labour dangled in front of the gobbiest man in TV. 

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 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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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.