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Commons Confidential: Why Tom Watson likes Mondays

The scourge of Murdoch fancies himself as a DJ.

Is the Grim Reaper, Iain Duncan Smith, growing absent-minded? The welfare slasher-in-chief was observed at the bar of the House leaning on the back of Anne Begg’s wheelchair, seemingly oblivious to the Aberdeen MP. Thankfully Begg, who has Gaucher’s disease, a degenerative condition, had the brake on or she could’ve been propelled towards the Mace before the Speaker could yell, “Disorder, disorder!” A colleague of Begg suggests that a notice be hung asking the cabinet minister to keep his hands off the chair of the work and pensions committee as well as the benefits of the disabled.

That scourge of Murdoch, “Tommy Gun” Watson, fancies himself as a DJ. Ahead of his discspinning at a Salford gig on the Friday before Labour’s conference, Tommy Gun popped into a Manchester club to watch the pros in action. I’m told his blush was visible in the gloom when he asked the name of a bearded figure and learned it was Bez of Happy Mondays, who, I’m reliably informed, is famous. Just when you might think it couldn’t get any more embarrassing, it did. Tommy Gun, a parliamentarian who brought the Sun King to his knees, was mistaken for an undercover reporter from the New Musical Express.

A junior ministerial job split between the Business and Education departments has gone to the head of the turbo-ambitious Matt Hancock. Matt has declared that, in future, he wants to be called Matthew. And Matt wishes to be referred to as a former adviser to George Osborne instead of an ex-official at the Bank of England. Good to see that the one-time Bank apparatchik Matt Hancock has got his priorities sorted.

Red Ed delivered a witty riff about union barons and Olympic events at the Trades Union Congress general council dinner in Brighton – but Miliband’s jokes were trumped by Brendan Barber, the general secretary putting himself out to grass. Barber, who retires from the TUC this year, reshuffled his affiliates and put the militant train stopper Bob Crow in charge of the Sir Humphreys union, the First Division Association. Crowbar’s strike for gongs is, alas, too good to be true.

The royal marine turned- spud millionaire Andrew Bridgen, the Tory flagbearer for North-West Leicestershire, didn’t expect preferment in Dave’s reshuffle. He is, after all, a successful businessman. But his pulse quickened during the chaotic musical chairs when he answered his phone and a young lady announced, “It’s the Prime Minister’s Office here.” What could it be? Environment? Business? Perhaps Defence? Nope. The voice continued: “You may collect the two bottles of whisky the PM has signed.”

Glaswegians booing the Scottish separatist Alex Salmond was gold for the No campaign, but I hear the political wing of Team GB is running on empty. Trade unions north of Hadrian’s Wall are reluctant to fund the unionist cause.

Kevin Maguire is 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 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.