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Why Ed won’t play Balls

Kevin Maguire's "Commons Confidential" column.

The political “advice” to Ed Miliband to reshuffle the bruiser Ed Balls out of the shadow chancellorship is naked special pleading by the Tory camp and Labour’s Blairite rump. Balls repeatedly hurts the Conservatives. He predicted that austerity would create a double-dip recession and is smart at opposition guerrilla tactics, proposing that money saved on the Olympics should be siphoned off to cancel a petrol-tax rise. His biggest rave reviews are from David Cameron, who has abused Balls as a “muttering idiot” and “the most annoying person in modern politics”: backhanded compliments from Flashman.

Both Eds insist that there’s no deal to keep Balls in the Treasury brief, yet Miliband would face a revolt by MPs if he offered the post a third time to his big brother, David. Allies of the shadow chancellor whisper that he’d take his bat and balls away and retire to the back benches rather than swallow demotion to another portfolio.

Fresh signs that the Prime Spinner, Cameron, is taking his own advice and sidelining Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver, the unhappy BBC import who never got to grips with the Downing Street machine. Cameron, a slick PR man for ITV after his mother-in-law put in a word with the boss, wandered down the plane alone to chat with hacks during a jaunt to Afghanistan. Where was his communications chief, Crazy Olive? Buckled up in his seat, fast asleep. That would never have happened in Alastair Campbell’s day.

Colleagues of Aidan Burley, the Tory Neanderthal who, in succeeding Labour’s urbane Dr Tony Wright in Cannock Chase, proved that Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t apply to politicians, mumble that the Nazi stag-party rightwhinge throwback is regularly distracted by his iPad during meetings of the work and pensions committee. That may be a small mercy. Hurly- Burley’s “lefty multicultural crap” verdict on Danny Boyle’s Olympic ceremony suggested a reactionary disposition; he may regard sending children up chimneys as an answer to youth unemployment.

A tambourine-playing snout let out a war cry when confronted by Alastair Campbell in the official organ of the Salvation Army. Tony Blair’s one-time weapon of mass disinformation, who once decreed, “We don’t do God,” bills himself these days as “a pro-faith atheist”. Sounds to me like he’s hedging his bets in case he’s asked to account for the Iraq slaughter at the pearly gates.

Grumbling at the Northern Ireland Office, where the parliamentary private secretaries, including Alec Shelbrooke, who carries the bags of the Grenadier Guardturned- minister Private Mike Penning, are banned from flying to the province on cost grounds. Shelbrooke is the size of a Challenger tank, so commandeering a Chinook helicopter to airlift him over would be expensive.

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 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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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.