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Commons Confidential: Dave the party pooper

The battle of the Christmas drinks parties.

“The Prime Minister requests the pleasure of the company of Kevin Maguire . . .” So read the invitation to Downing Street meeja drinks. Pleasure? I doubt it. More necessity when David Cameron’s bidding was extended to the Westminster lobby, of which yours truly is a member. But Flashman must really hate Ed Balls. The hastily arranged No 10 reception coincided with festive drinks announced a fortnight earlier by the shadow chancellor. The Buller Boy hoped to lure hacks away from an opponent who constantly winds him up with hand signals. Downing Street’s Mr Temper Tantrum is still furious he was rebuked by the Speaker for calling Balls a “muttering idiot”.

I gave George Osborne’s kids’ Christmas party at No 11 a wide berth. Osborne posing, all avuncular, with kids of political hacks while grabbing cash from hard-pressed families would’ve been too much to stomach.

The joy of working in the Palace of Westminster is what you hear from bumping into people. This year’s initiation ceremony to join the Bullingdon Club, disclosed an Oxford student who has a chum in that oafish society, was to burn a £50 note in front of a beggar. I wonder if Dave and George, Boris, too, swell with pride, recalling how they were all into this hooray henrying together before imposing austerity on low- and middle-earning Britons.

The Tory Boy Andrew Griffiths, one of Cameron’s arrogant young thrusters, sounded a tad delusional during the Christmas bash of the all-party Beer Group. Jonathan Neame, boss of family brewing firm Shepherd Neame, recalled with contentment how “James Bond now has a beer instead of a dry Martini” in Skyfall. Heineken poured a lot of money into that product placement. Immodest Griffiths responded with a statement of such superfluous conceit, it was more Johnny English than 007: “I want to quash the rumour that even though James Bond is a beer drinker I’m going to be the next James Bond.” I’m sure Daniel Craig would like to end any idle speculation that he may stand for parliament in Burton.

Demands from constituencies and charities for raffle prizes of bottles of whisky, often signed by the PM or a party leader, are an occupational hazard for MPs. The £30 cost is unclaimable on expenses and the annual bill runs into hundreds of pounds. Steve McCabe, the genial Birmingham Selly Oak MP with a burr unsmoothed by 35 years out of Port Glasgow, told a tale of a Scottish Labour comrade with a reputation for parsimony. The MP retired and his successor willingly supplied whisky for a fundraising draw. “Och, ah see they now dae full size bottles,” observed the local worthy. The new MP asked: “Whit dae ye mean?” “Yer predecessor,” answered the worthy, “said they only sauld miniatures in the Commons.”

Tories in Clacton voted for a five-year residency criterion before people moving into the area qualify for support. A case of The Only Way Isn’t Essex? Most Clacton residents seem originally from London anyway.

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 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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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.