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Commons Confidential: Why Ed’s at the back of the queue

Downing Street’s campaign to marginalise Ed Miliband on state occasions continued at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition played second fiddle to the head of the country’s third party. Nick Clegg was invited, as David Cameron’s deputy, to lay a wreath ahead of Mili. Cameron has exploited the Con-Dem coalition to push his Labour rival down the pecking order. At state banquets, Mili is seated behind a pillar near the fire exit, with Cleggy given his seat. Cam pulls the same trick when notables such as Aung San Suu Kyi address both houses of parliament. And it happened at Will’s and Kate’s royal nuptials.

In past eras, both Labour and Tory, opposition leaders took prominence over the deputy PM. The difficulty of raising the slight without appearing precious has Labour biting its tongue. Yet never let it be said that no blow is too low for Dave the Petty.

The Tory squillionaire Michael Ashcroft owns the world’s largest collection of Victoria Cross medals –more than 150 in total. The haul is displayed at the Imperial War Museum. Musty eyebrows twitched in the jobs-for life chamber when Lord Cashcroft of Belize tabled a question about a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was swiftly redirected to the Public Record Office in Kew. Yet Cashcroft’s passion carries a public price tag. Written answers cost £164 on average.

No sooner had Westminster City Council’s housing arm offered a £150 reward to find a flat for an MP than it advised landlords how to get rid of “uneconomical” tenants when the housing benefit cap is fitted. The answer is, in essence, possession orders. The Tory authority anticipates evicted families decamping to cheaper areas such as Greenwich, Merton, Lewisham and Wandsworth. That should free accommodation for pols granted a £335 weekly rent ceiling, higher than the limit on one- and two-bed flats for housing benefit claimants. Very convenient. For MPs.

Confusion in the Treasury since Greg Clark, MP for Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, insisted on retaining his old cities brief when reshuffled to financial secretary in George Osborne’s unmerry band. Bits of regulation were unceremoniously dumped on the economic secretary, Sajid Javid. In Cameron’s rearrangement of the deckchairs, the education minister Lord Hill tried but failed to quit, while Clark the double-jobber accepted a new post on condition that he keep the powers of the old. The PM was a bystander in his own reshuffle.

TV producers are discovering that Labour veterans of 1980s battles with Maggie are reluctant to speak ill of the dead. Preparing an obit to be broadcast when she shuffles off this mortal coil, programme-makers were surprised to find Neil Kinnock and others pulling their punches. Some will applaud their chivalry. Your correspondent, son of a miner, offered an honest and therefore unflattering assessment.

The Euro-allergic cabinet minister Michael Gove’s chuntering about Britain leaving the EU reminds ex-Times colleagues of a disaster when he persuaded the paper to endorse Eurosceptics at the 1997 election. So the Times backed an unholy alliance with everyone from Tony Benn to Bill Cash – and the Thunderer became the Whimperer as Tony Blair swept home with a 179-seat majority.

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 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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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.