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Commons Confidential: Mitchell’s military gap year

Andrew Mitchell only spent eight months in the forces - a fact that gets glossed over a lot...

Professor Ed is not one for small talk, struggling to find anecdotes at a dozen separate receptions every evening at Labour’s conference in Manchester. My Celtic snout in the kilt told me how the temperature plummeted at the Scottish ceilidh when Miliband opened a wee speech with: “I met this bloke in Glasgow . . .” You might meet a “guy” or a “man” in Glasgae, as this column’s Braveheart said, but never the anglicised “bloke”. He did, however, express relief that Mili avoided the insulting “Jimmy” or “Jock”.

Seen energetically working the room was the Labour peer John Reid. Laird Reid is a director of the Olympic flop G4S, which supplied security guards in Manchester. My snout remarked that it was conscientious of one so esteemed to check delegates’ passes in person.

To the Hope Not Hate bash in Manchester, where your correspondent aimed for a cheap laugh by welcoming the “plebs” to a curry evening. The restaurant roared, but as the cheers died down a Welsh voice was heard shouting: “Speak for yourself, sir!” Lord Kinnock of Neil, for it was he, remains one of the best purveyors of the contrarian one-liner. I recall him yelling over the applause as the Murdinator, “Tommy Gun” Watson, entered the Gay Hussar in London: “Let it go to your head, son, let it go to your head.”

The military credentials of the private-school millionaire lout Andrew Mitchell have been questioned since he abused a Downing Street police officer. The Chief Whippersnapper boasts he served in the Royal Tank Regiment and was a UN peacekeeper. What he doesn’t say is it was an eight-months short service commission between Rugby and Cambridge. His army of enemies describes it as a taster course for public school boys. No wonder, when asked about Mitchell’s career, Paddy Ashdown, a Special Boat Service veteran, muttered: “There are soldiers and there are soldiers.” It is said of Captain Ashdown that he learned to kill with a cheese wire and of Mitchell that he orders his butler to avoid slicing the nose from the Brie.

As the offspring of Tony Blair and Jack Straw strive to follow in their fathers’ footsteps by finding parliamentary seats, the son of the Labour leader who won most elections is retiring from his seat in the cab of a railway engine. Giles Wilson, 64, son of the four-times winner Harold, will pull out of London Waterloo for the last time to head for retirement. The South-West Trains driver’s job is a far cry from the ambitions of children of today’s political class but Wilson Jr isn’t your typical horny-handed son of toil. Harold sent him to an expensive private school in north London and he owns a couple of restored branch-line stations in Devon.

Talking of Straw Sr, copies of his very readable autobiography weren’t available at the launch party for it because the Daily Mail, edited by his old Leeds University comrade Paul Dacre, was waiting to serialise the book. If the former foreign secretary could start a war in Iraq without weapons of mass destruction, a book launch without the book must’ve felt perfectly normal.

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 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference 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.