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How Osborne got caught short

Kevin Maguire's "Commons Confidential" column.

An official notice appeared in the men’s toilets outside the Commons chamber after George Osborne ladled further austerity on top of declaring war on low-earning Britons. The typed A4 sign, inside a transparent plastic sheath to keep dry both the paper and ink as red as Boy George’s extended borrowing, went straight to the point: “This Cabinet is Currently OUT OF ORDER.” And who could conceivably disagree, when the coalition has turned economic recovery into recession, when its “new politics” is worse than the old, and when Cameron’s compassionate greenwash was long ago rinsed off to reveal a diehard Thatcherite in a Buller Boy’s Edwardian waistcoat?

Briefly the movie minister in Tony Blair’s first regime, the handwringing Scottish MP Tom Clarke starred as an executioner of his Labour colleague Denis MacShane on the Commons Inquisition that is the standards and privileges committee. Yet every cloud has a silver lining. The Coatbridge assassin, muttered a snout, now occupies the former Rotherham Europhile’s much-coveted office, along from Jack Straw, under the Chamber. He moved into the vacated room on Status Row after the Inquisition forced MacShane to quit parliament over dodgy receipts to finance Continental jaunts. Not so much walking in a dead man’s shoes as sitting at a dead man’s desk, after helping despatch that very man.

Best-laid plans and all that when Michael Dugher herded a group of MPs from an Irish embassy bash to a United Arab Emirates shindig, promising a sparkling evening at what the party animal and shadow frontbencher billed as London’s equivalent of New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas. The fizz went out of the night when the posse, including those goodtime Tories, Therese Coffey and Liz Truss, arrived at the UAE reception to discover that early arrivers had drunk the oil-rich kingdom dry of champagne.

Labour’s national executive mercifully agreed to shave a day off its annual conference. This year, the jamboree will start at 11am on Sunday and finish at 3pm on Wednesday, instead of Thursday. The scheduling of Ed Miliband’s speech, however, is a trickier challenge. Panjandrums have long yearned to copy the Cons and Lib Dems, where the leader’s set piece brings proceedings to a close. The problem is the tradition of “The Red Flag”, shrouding oft our martyr’d dead, bringing down the curtain. Officials are nervous that the moment Mili sits back down, clenchedfist socialists hollering about their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold might detract from his moderate message.

The plot thickens in the All Party Writers Group. The talk is of holding creative writing courses. Doubtless handy when filling in Ipsa expenses forms.

The Islington lefty-turnedmilitant moderate Margaret “Enver” Hodge’s role as hammer of Starbucks and assorted taxshy companies is winning her new admirers. I overheard one of her fellow Blairites hail Enver Hodge as “the thinking man’s Gwyneth Dunwoody”.

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 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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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.