Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

In the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria says that Obama should reject General McChrystal's demand for a troop surge in Afghanistan:

Why has security gotten worse? Largely because Hamid Karzai's government is ineffective and corrupt and has alienated large numbers of Pashtuns, who have migrated to the Taliban. It is not clear that this problem can be solved by force, even using a smart counterinsurgency strategy. In fact, more troops injected into the current climate could provoke an anti-government or nationalist backlash.

On the day the London Evening Standard goes free, the Times's Libby Purves argues that the days of free online content are over:

It's been fun: like a jammed fruit machine spewing free tokens or a whisky-galore shipwreck. But it's got to stop. Content -- whether music, films, pictures, news or prose -- can't be free and flourish. The music and movie industries are fighting: journalism, after the ego trip of gaining millions of online readers, is following. It has to. There is no alternative.

The Guardian's Jackie Ashley writes that the quality of prospective MPs gives cause for optimism as the expenses scandal returns:

[T]his is the good news: that parliamentary politics really is being cleaned up. If MPs behave badly, out they will go. Most ordinary parliamentarians work very hard, and for less money than they could get elsewhere. There are rotten apples and overripe plums; but there are some good ones too. You can't improve parliament without encouraging a fresh wave of keen, principled and determined outsiders to breach its walls. Now this is going to happen.

The New York Times's Paul Krugman warns that an obsessive fear of inflation threatens to prevent a full economic recovery:

What's even more extraordinary, however, is the idea that raising rates would make sense any time soon. After all, the unemployment rate is a horrifying 9.8 per cent and still rising, while inflation is running well below the Fed's long-term target. This suggests that the Fed should be in no hurry to tighten -- in fact, standard policy rules of thumb suggest that interest rates should be left on hold for the next two years or more, or until the unemployment rate has fallen to around 7 per cent.

In the Independent, Paul Collier says that the economic crisis has led to a damaging flight of finance from Africa:

Why does this matter? It matters because Africa desperately needs more investment. For decades Africa has been investing only around 20 per cent of national income, whereas Asia is investing around 40 per cent. At these rates, almost regardless of returns, Africa will continue to fall further behind the emerging-market economies. Yet Africa simply cannot afford to finance a substantial increase in investment from its internal resources. A domestically financed increase in investment could only come at the expense of consumption.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.