“Black Swan” author adores David Cameron

I have to say his description of the PM startled and frustrated me.

I had the privilege of interviewing Nassim Nicholas Taleb a fortnight ago, and the resulting "Q&A" is published in this week's New Statesman. Taleb is the author of the bestselling book The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable -- described in the Times as one of the 12 most influential books since the Second World War.

Bryan Appleyard has called Taleb "the hottest thinker in the world". He also happens to be one of a handful of commentators who can claim to have predicted the Great Crash of 2008.

I've been a fan of Taleb ever since I saw him take apart the former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff in this Newsnight discussion, in which he condemned economists for explaining events "after the fact" and for using "bogus measures of risk".

His attacks on the bankers and the economics profession ("charlatans", is how he refers to them in the interview), as well as on militant atheists (again, "charlatans"), are as intellectually robust as they are amusing and acerbic.

His Twitter feed is full of humour, wisdom and insight.

So I was astonished -- and, as a long-standing critic of the cult of Cameron, frustrated! -- to hear Taleb tell me that he regards David Cameron as "extraordinary". Here's the relevant exchange:

Here in the UK, the government is giving even more power to our central bank.
Your new government is at least conscious. You don't have the Office of Management and Budget, which never forecasts anything right.

We'll soon have an office of budget control.
But here they understand. David Cameron understands expert problems. He is extraordinary.

You have described him as "the best thing we have left on this planet".
Exactly. I went to Washington, and the discourse had nothing to do with the real problem. And I thought, "He's the only thing we have left."

Let's be clear: in my view, Cameron is undoubtedly a bright guy, a brilliant tactician and a wiser leader of the Conservatives than his immediate predecessors.I know that Vernon Bogdanor, his old tutor at Oxford, has described the PM as one of the "ablest students" he ever taught and that he achieved a First in PPE from Brasenose College. Cameron, then, is no Dubbya-style dullard.

But "the best thing we have left on this planet"? "The only thing we have left"? "Extraordinary"? I'm not sure even Sam Cam would agree with such over-the-top and effusive praise for her husband, even if it does come from the radical and original thinker behind the theory of Black Swan events .

I guess being one of the cleverest men on the planet doesn't make you immune from having bad judgement.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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