Osborne lays the groundwork for IMF cash increase

The Chancellor has indicated that Britain could increase its IMF contribution - again. Tory Euroscep

George Osborne has said that Britain could provide more funds to the IMF if there is a "strong case" for an increase. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Chancellor said that he would consider increasing Britain's contributions above the £10bn extra already pledged, if there were adequate reassurances.

This is nothing new: Osborne has been laying the foundations for an increased British contribution for a while. It's vital for Britain that the IMF has enough cash to help struggling eurozone countries, because of our geographical position and trade links with Europe. But David Cameron gained some serious brownie points with his party when he opted out of further contributions to the eurozone bailout, and it will be difficult for the government to sell this as anything but propping up the eurozone by another name.

My colleague Rafael Behr recently explained why increasing IMF contributions is a political headache for Osborne:

The epicentre of instability is, of course, the eurozone, but Osborne cannot make an explicit commitment to bailout Britain's continental neighbours for fear of aggravating eurosceptic Tory backbenchers. Labour has also made it clear that it would oppose a direct transfer of UK money to a dedicated EU bailout fund - even one administered by the IMF. If enough Tories rebelled, a vote in parliament that ended up being framed in terms of whether or not good British pounds should be thrown after bad euros would be very tricky for the government. So any UK assistance to precarious eurozone economies has to be laundered through the general IMF kitty. (In practice that is hardly different from contributing to a specific euro bailout fund and eurosceptic rebels are unlikely to accept the distinction.)

Yet it looks as if it is edging closer to happening. The FT today reports that "Osborne has swept away most of the hurdles the government had erected to prevent Britain pledging billions of pounds for the International Monetary Fund", suggesting that the funds could be upped as soon as March.

Osborne will not be relishing the prospect of returning to parliament to ask for more funds -- particularly given the struggle he faced in July when the Commons voted on the last funding increase.

Sir Peter Tapsell summed up the feelings of many on the Conservative backbenches when he told David Cameron this week that "for Britain to commit still more funds to the IMF would, in effect, be providing a subsidy to Germany" because Berlin was not doing enough to support the euro.

The government is braced for a rebellion on this, but that will not mean it will not go ahead. It all comes down to Labour's position. The party sided with the sceptics in July (Ed Balls took a notably hostile position) but the Tory rebellion was not big enough to defeat the government. It's likely that there would be a higher turnout, and more strong feelings, in a repeat. The question is whether Labour decides to play the role of responsible global citizen (and some are reporting they might), or whether the chance to destabilise the coalition is too good to miss.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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