Commons Confidential: Labour’s zero-hours hero

Plus: reading between the lines (on David Cameron's shirt).

Trouble at t’Labour mill since Andy Burnham called for the outlawing of zero-hours contracts. These put workers at the beck and call of bosses who summon them to work some weeks but then ignore them, unpaid, in others. Ending exploitation is just the job for “one-nation” Labour, you might think. Except I hear that after the shadow health secretary vacated the Andrew Marr Show sofa, his mobile rang. The call, whispered my snout, was from Ed Miliband’s office. Outlawing zero-hours contracts, Burnham was scolded, isn’t Labour Party policy and he must not publicly champion their abolition. The word in Westminster is that the caller was Tim Livesey, Miliband’s chief of staff. Burnham told him where to get off and terminated the conversation. Labour backbenchers side with Burnham, grumbling that the party needs to be less timid.

George Osborne’s pushy mouthpiece Thea Rogers, a former BBC bod, was spied behaving oddly at a CBI dinner in London at the Grosvenor House hotel. She photographed the bow-tied Chancellor on her cameraphone as he was speaking. The suggestion is that either it was devotion or Rogers wanted a memento for when the coalition collapses.

Housing benefit caps aren’t forcing MPs to slum it. The estate agent Tuckerman circulated details of a plush, £350-a-week, one-bed pad within chiming distance of Big Ben. The rent is £15 above the £335 limit for MPs, which itself is £85 above the £250 housing benefit ceiling. My source revealed the wealthier MPs pay a few quid more than the agreed subsidy for better digs. None, as far as I know, has moved in with a family to cover the bedroom tax.

David Cameron was proud of a blue-and-purple checked shirt he wore on the flight to Washington, DC to meet President Obama. Travelling hacks pulled the Prime Minister’s leg, suggesting that the colours represented a Tory-Ukip alliance. On the plane home, he was back in his favoured leisurewear, a black polo shirt.

Thatcher’s funeral boosted one constituency Labour party’s funds. Jimmy Hood, the Lanark and Hamilton East MP, raised £500 by auctioning the notes jotted down by his fellow ex-miner Dennis Skinner for his challenge to the scrapping of PMQs.

Nothing is sacred, when the Queen’s birthday falls victim of the ConDem fatwa on the civil service. Dominic Grieve, the legal eagle, is grabbing a day and a half back from 8,700 staff at the Serious Fraud Office, Crown Prosecution Service and Treasury solicitor’s department. Officials enjoyed two and a half “privilege” days for Her Maj’s celebrations, Christmas and an early finish on Maundy Thursday. In future, workers must choose a single day. Will Santa prove more popular than Betty?  

Kevin Maguire is the 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 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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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.