The real winners of the Vince Cable debacle

Yep, the bankers!

I took part in a slightly bizarre but fun Today programme discussion this morning about whether or not we have a "Maoist" government. You may remember the remarks by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who told two undercover Telegraph journalists:

There is a lot of things happening. There is a kind of Maoist revolution happening in a lot of areas like the health service, local government, reform, all this kind of stuff, which is in danger of getting out of . . . We are trying to do too many things, actually.

He was also, we assume, one of the key cabinet sources for Andrew Rawnsley's column in the Obs last weekend:

I have actually heard more than one member of the cabinet explicitly refer to the government as "Maoist".

In fact, the truth is that we political journalists have short memories. Despite all the song and dance about Maoism, which prompted this morning's Today programme chat on Radio 4 (involving not just me, but the noted China and Chairman Mao specialist Jonathan Fenby) and led to the FT's "Mao rating" scheme, Cable actually used the Maoist tag in public more than a month ago.

From the Guardian, 12 November:

The abolition of regional development agencies by the coalition was a "little Maoist and chaotic", Business Secretary Vince Cable told a gathering in Birmingham last night.

Hmm.

Cable has a rather curious relationship with communist language, analogies and labels. As the politics lecturer Ed Rooksby points out over at Comment Is Free:

What is it about Vince Cable and communism? Barely a month seems to go by without Cable comparing others, or being compared himself, to something or someone related to it. In September, the Liberal Democrat minister was accused (implausibly) of being some sort of quasi-Marxist after making some mildly critical remarks about capitalism in a speech. In 2007, Cable made his memorable quip about Gordon Brown having undergone a "remarkable transformation . . . from Stalin to Mr Bean". While having his own Mr Bean moment, revealed this week, Cable was at it again. This time it was Mao.

Rooksby makes an important if provocative point at the end of his piece on Cable, the coalition and Chairman Mao. Like the Maoist government in China, he writes:

. . . this is, in an important sense, a class-struggle government – one acting consciously and directly on behalf of the rich. The role performed by the government in conditions of economic crisis is, all too often, to shift the costs of that crisis on to the poor and least well-off. The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it, and is setting about that task with great enthusiasm.

You might roll your eyes at the analogy, but which group of people, aside from the bosses and shareholders of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, will be rubbing their hands in glee this week at the sight of Cable's very public and humiliating defenestration? Yep, you guessed it, the bankers.

Here's the well-informed James Chapman writing in the Daily Mail:

The prospect of a crackdown on a £7bn bonus windfall for bankers is receding as a result of Vince Cable's weakened position in the cabinet.

The Liberal Democrat Business Secretary had been leading demands for tough action as banks prepare to make a bumper round of payments.

Mr Cable's allies have suggested Britain should follow Ireland's lead and block bonuses at institutions part-owned by the taxpayer, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Cable built his reputation, in opposition, as the hammer of the bankers; in government for the first time in his life, he had the opportunity to help restrain the excesses, greed and irresponsible behaviour of our bailed-out financial elites. But no more. He is a diminished figure, lacking clout and credibility. George Osborne will be the man doing the deals with the bank bosses on behalf of the coalition and, as Cable admitted to the Telegraph duo:

We have a big argument going on about tax [on the bankers] and that is party political, because I am arguing with Nick Clegg for a very tough approach and our Conservative friends don't want to do that.

Osborne and his City allies might argue, in response, that the Treasury has already announced a levy on banks that will raise £2.5bn a year. But as the Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a member of the Treasury select committee, pointed out the day after the Chancellor's Spending Review on 20 October:

The government has opted to apply the levy over and above a £20bn allowance rather than using a threshold. Under a threshold, any bank with total liabilities of more than £20bn would have been taxed on all their profits, while under the plans announced today all banks regardless of their size will not be subject to the levy on their first £20bn of taxable liabilities.

A stipulation was included in today's plans that the levy will not apply to firms where 50 per cent or more of activity is defined as "non-financial". Because investment banks often have extensive and varied operations, this could allow firms to dodge the tax.

Figures obtained by Umunna through a parliamentary question in July show that the government only hopes to raise £1.15bn from the levy in 2011-2012 and £8.37bn in total between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015 – less than half the government's total cuts to welfare spending of £18bn announced in the Spending Review. As Rooksby concluded in his CiF piece:

The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it . . .

Merry Christmas!

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.

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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder