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No love lost with Dave and Hugh

Kevin Maguire's "Commons Confidential" column.

Love, actually, was missing during the battle of the premiers in Birmingham. Downing Street was cock-a-hoop, boasting that David Cameron had outsmarted the pretend prime minister, Hugh Grant, moments before the pair appeared on Andrew Marr’s Sunday sofa show on BBC1. Cam, incandescent after the actor launched a pre-emptive strike in the Observer by demanding that No 10 back statutory control of newspapers, deployed his trademark menace laced with charm to ensure that Grant behaved on live telly.

The Hacked Off privacy campaigner was sought out by the hacked-off politician just before he went on air. “Good luck,” said Cameron. “I hear you’re having a go at me already.” Aides to Dodgy Dave said that his intervention changed the script. Grant was a pussycat on the box, purring instead of sticking his claws into the Prime Minister. The People’s Toff calls it “squaring” people, a term with creepy masonic undertones.

To Birmingham, where the loadsamoney web marketer Michael Green, whose alter ego uses the Tory moniker Grant Shapps, relied on what must be the world’s largest autocue on the conference stage. Visible to sniggering hacks, the text used capital letters to EMPHASISE points and gave instructions to pause for applause. All that was missing was a dot bouncing across the top of the words or it would’ve been bad karaoke.

In Brum in abusive spirit if not in body was Andrew “Fucking Plebs” Mitchell. The two wheeled yob has become a figure of fun, tricky for a chief whip required to impose discipline on rebellious backbenchers.

That the city’s only Tory MP stayed away from the jamboree encouraged stories about his weirdness. I was told that before the 2005 election, the Sutton Coldfield Observer asked its local parliamentarian for his favourite album. Cameron liked Keane, whose singer, Tom, resembles Dave. Mitchell told the local rag that he liked anything by Keane, an uncool reply, as the band had only one album out at the time.

As reported, the high Tory Charles Moore fears his favourite suit is destined for rags after Ed Miliband splattered an insect on the shoulder. The stain is indelible, he told me: Mili’s hanky action rubbed in as well as spread it. “The blood is human,” Moore added. “The insect was a large parasite. Very unpleasant.” So that’s first blood to Red Ed in the one-nation war.

Uniformed squaddies are to be awarded VIP access to the Houses of Parliament, picked out of queues and fast-tracked through security. I’m sure that most would prefer a salary increase or to avoid a pension cut but it should make it easier for them to lobby MPs who laud the military, then shrink from paying the forces properly.

Word reaches us of a male Tory, an MP with lofty ambitions, who uttered the crude “I would like to fuck you” to a chap visiting parliament. The MP isn’t publicly gay and I have no intention of outing him – but I’d advise the true blue to check next time that the target of his brusqueness isn’t a Labour councilor.

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 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India 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.