Who is the lurking tiger shark of the government: Michael Gove or George Osborne?

What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upw

It is a crystal clear autumn day and Larry, Moe and I are outside Westminster station. Before us, the gold trimmings on Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are blinging away in the sunshine.

“And this, Larry, is where all the people who run the country work.”

“Why do they run the country?”

“Good question, my friend.”

It feels odd being back here. The last time I came to this Tube station was for a Very Important Meeting with a minister. I had my smart suit on and felt very purposeful, just like all the square-jawed wonks milling around us. Now, though none of our great leaders would dream of pointing it out, I am just a pleb. I’ve got my holey old puffa jacket on and my only purpose is to be first in the queue for the London Aquarium, where Larry, Moe and I plan to spend the morning watching real live sharks.

Larry’s long and fervent relationship with Bob the Builder has come to an abrupt end. It turns out that Bob is “just for babies”. His new hero is Captain Barnacles, star of the sea-life-based educational cartoon The Octonauts. I find little to love about Barnacles, a curiously blank-faced teddy bear in a diving suit, but watching fish at the Aquarium certainly beats counting diggers at the building site down the road.

One day, when Larry is older, perhaps we’ll come to look around the Houses of Parliament, so we can marvel at our democracy in action. But there’s no time for that today, so we cross Westminster Bridge at a snip. Result! We are literally the first people here. A meet-and-greet girl with a pneumatic smile takes our picture and waves us inside.

The first few tanks are just the warm-up: jellyfish like luminous petticoats; furtive hermit crabs; a brace of knobbly sea slugs. Larry scoots past with his eyes on the prize. Deep in the heart of the cavernous building he finds what he is looking for: an enormous, three-storey tank filled with an eye-popping array of sea life. Above us, turtles the size of dining tables perform elegant pirouettes. Rays glide and dip like fat kites. One silver fish has a face uncannily like that of Victor Meldrew. And at the very bottom of the tank, creeping slowly, menacingly, with the terrible snaggle-toothed nonsmile of a James Bond baddy: the sand tiger shark.

Larry is breathless with excitement. “He’s like a monster, Mummy, like a thing, like a big, fat, terrible . . .” He grapples with his limited vocabulary. “Like a BEAST!”

We sit down to watch. After a few minutes, hypnotised by perpetual motion, I drift into a flight of fancy. What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upwards. Who’d be the lurking tiger shark – George Osborne? Michael Gove?

Meanwhile, the animals would run the country. They would do something about overfishing. Maybe they would ban plastic bags, and cod fish fingers, and oil exploration in the Arctic. As ideas go, I’ve certainly had worse.

Who is the tiger shark of the coalition? Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.