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21 March 2014

Commons Confidential: Jeremy Hunt takes to the wards

Plus: Who on earth is Gareth Johnson?

By Kevin Maguire

Nurses robbed of wage rises have a new little helper in the wards: the robber himself, Jeremy Hunt. The Health Secretary boasts of working on the NHS front line in his Surrey constituency. A local Tory leaflet carries a photograph of him in a fluorescent pinny, heroically pushing a trolley. Hunt, who is about as popular as MRSA with staff, says he volunteers on Fridays at the Haslemere, Royal Surrey and Frimley Park hospitals. He finds the work “extremely rewarding” – a phrase that NHS staff never use about their employment under Hunt’s tenure.

Tough guy, Tony Benn. The former party chair Ian McCartney, the diminutive one-time leader of Little Labour, recalled going to talk about flooding in the Kent coalfield with Benn, who was then the energy secretary. Benn broke his ankle falling down the stairs on his way out of the Department of Energy building. The lefty hobbled in to cabinet and went to hospital later. Whenever the pair subsequently met, Benn would joke to McCartney, “Don’t come near me.” Whatever else he did, Benn nailed the old canard that lefties lack humour.

Have you heard of Gareth Johnson? I hadn’t. Apparently he’s a Tory MP. In four years, I can’t recall seeing or hearing the invisible member for Dartford in the House of Commons. Perhaps our paths just never cross. Further investigation has discovered that he is lobby fodder, hardly ever rebelling, and tops up his £66,396 salary with an £800 monthly sideline as a solicitor. How many more nonentities are there in the place?

Grumbling is heard in the Labour ranks after a one-line whip was imposed for a vote against disability cuts but there was a two-liner on badgers. Old lags mutter the welfare of people should be a higher priority than that of animals. True, but saving Mr Brock is a cost-free manifesto pledge – radicalism on the cheap. The disabled come with a price tag and, my unhappy lefty snout complained, they don’t generate as much sympathy. Which is tragic if true.

Leafing through the leatherbound book signed by guest speakers at Press Gallery luncheons in the Mock-Gothic Fun Palace, an informant deciphered on the front page the scribble of Richard Beeching, the British Railways chair who shut thousands of stations. Presumably Dr Beeching axed the previous volume.

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Adam Afriyie has eclectic tastes. A snout spied the Tory drinking champagne and Diet Coke at the plush Corinthia Hotel, close to Westminster. I hasten to add for the benefit of the snooty Nicholas Soames, a puffed-up grandee who seems to treat the council-estate-made millionaire as an inferior, that Afriyie sipped from separate glasses.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror