Would a pigeon be a better chancellor than George Osborne?

Ten chances to change course, ten chances blown.

Earlier today, somewhat facetiously, I wrote:

It's weird to know – like, be absolutely certain – that I would be a better chancellor than Osborne.

The point of that is not, by any means, to claim extraordinary economic competency for myself. It is rather that at every possible moment, George Osborne has been presented with two options – hold the course, or switch to Plan B/A-/whatever – and picked the exact wrong one.

Let's look at the constraints Osborne has. It would be weird for him to just change policy out of nowhere, so it has to be in reaction to some event, or at a time when such a change would be expected. Since the emergency budget in June 2010, when the bulk of the Government's policy was laid out, he has had two budgets, two autumn statements, and an emergency spending review, at all of which he could have changed course (which, for the avoidance of doubt, would be switching from austerity). Five blown opportunities there.

But there have also been five negative quarters since Osborne took charge – Q4 2010, Q2 & Q4 2011, and Q1 & Q2. Each one of those will have been a wake-up-call that not everything was going to plan. Yes, even the ones blamed on the snow.

So that's ten opportunities to pick the right course. If you tossed a coin, rolled a die, or asked a pigeon to peck at two keys marked "plan a" and "plan b" in exchange for kernels of corn, you would have expected it to pick the right option five times. The chance of picking the wrong one all ten times in a row, like Osborne did, is just 0.1 per cent. 

So 99.9 times out of one hundred, our hungry avian chancellor would have led to a stronger British economy than our actual one. Although to be fair, the pigeon wouldn't look as good in white tie.

Man vs pigeon: who ever wins, we lose.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.