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Commons Confidential: Huntie’s health accident

The Health Secretary took issue with the BBC over the way it reported the Lewisham Hospital A&E "downgrading".

The desperation of a government’s complaints to the BBC is a reliable guide to how much trouble it is in. The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, shot at the messenger after he downgraded accident and emergency and maternity services at Lewisham Hospital in south London. Auntie’s head of political programmes, Sue Inglish, initiated an inquiry after “some heat from various government sources”. The sensitive Hunt objected to Clive Myrie of the BBC News Channel describing the A&E unit, which is suffering a 25 per cent cut, as “downgraded” during an interview with the cabinet downgrader himself. The channel’s controller, Sam Taylor, was more worried that the minister’s gang might have spotted the straps used on the bottom of the screen were incorrect – saying the unit had been axed. Hunt couldn’t see them, otherwise he’d have required a trip to A&E.

The smoothiechops wannabe Tory leader Adam Afriyie’s charm offensive extends beyond Con MPs. Ambitious Adam sent handwritten letters to members of the all-party parliamentary group on the pharmaceutical industry. The nice touch was undermined when the note to Leicester South’s Jon Ashworth started with the scribble “Dear Peter”, Afriyie seemingly unaware that Ashworth replaced Peter Soulsby in May 2011. With political unintelligence like that, no wonder the secret Tory leadership plot was exposed.

Lab-Lib flirting progresses after Nick scorned Dave for a date with Ed to defeat Cameron’s plan to gain parliamentarily by axing 50 mostly Lab and Lib MPs. My tearoom snout observes that Labour and Lib Dem MPs now smile at each other, though it’s too early to sit together in the division lobby, and that the Lib Dem greybeard Ming Campbell was overheard cooing to Labour comrades: “It’s like the old days and feels much more comfortable.” The ConDems sound increasingly condemned by their own.

It appears that one of your columnist’s snouts was wrong to say that Afriyie was a regular visitor to the office of Liam Fox. The former defence secretary, tipped in right-wing papers as Cameron’s next chief whip, states that Afriyie has never been in his Commons room and that he, Fox, has nothing to do with any plots. I’m happy to put the matter right. I’ve always found Fox straight to deal with, including when he’s called me a communist.

The Democratic Unionist MP Ian Paisley, Jr has a wry sense of humour. Parading in the tearoom after voting against boundary changes, Labour’s Stephen Pound shouted: “Congratulations, Ian, on defending democracy.” Paisley, Jr replied: “Sir Ian to you, Mr Pound!” Setting aside that Debrett’s advises the correct title for the son of a peer is “the Honourable” not “Sir”, it was a refreshing change to shouts of yore of “No surrender!” from his lordly father.

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 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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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.