Ed Balls and George Osborne on The Andrew Marr Show this morning. Photograph: BBC.
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Balls ambushes Osborne with handshake on head-to-head TV debate

The Chancellor later tried to wriggle out of a one-to-one debate, saying that Danny Alexander should also be invited. 

Ahead of this week's Budget, Ed Balls (who I profile in the current NS) and George Osborne made their usual appearances on the Andrew Marr show. The best moment, as ever, came after their separate interviews when they appeared together on the studio sofa.

After Marr raised the subject of the TV debates, Balls ambushed Osborne by inviting him to shake hands on a head-to-head contest between them before the election. "Come on, George, let's go for it," he said. The Chancellor acceded, telling Balls, "I'm happy to meet you in a debate", and shaking his hand. But no sooner had he done so than he added: "Well, we're going to see who else wants to be invited ... I've got a very effective Chief Secretary [Danny Alexander] who I would think would also want to be part of that debate", prompting Balls to reply: "No, no, one-to-one, we just shook on it". It was a brilliant manoeuvre by Balls, although the image of him shaking hands with Osborne will doubtless by exploited by the anti-austerity Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

In their earlier interviews, both men sought to deploy their standard attack lines but were distracted by the question of how they would behave in a hung parliament. Pressed repeatedly on whether Labour would do a deal with the SNP, Balls refused to rule one out, telling Marr: "You know, Andrew, you've been covering politics for 30 years, parties, large parties, at this stage say 'we're fighting for a majority'". When asked whether the Tories could work with Ukip (Nigel Farage has offered to support them in return for an EU referendum before Christmas), Osborne similarly said: "We are going to get ... we are fighting for a majority. We only need 23 more seats to get that majority".

But both men's answers betrayed their lack of confidence in winning outright. Balls's suggested that he was obliged to maintain the pretence that Labour is fighting for a majority, even if one is unlikely, while Osborne began by saying that the Tories would win a majority before reverting to "we are fighting" (he knows that the former is extremely unlikely). The reason neither of them is prepared to rule out working with the smaller parties is precisely because they may need to do so. 

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.