Eurogroup demonstrates how not to calm fears about Cyprus

Jeroen Dijsselbloem nearly ruined everything.

Good news! Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chair of the group of eurozone finance ministers, nearly accidentally killed the euro yesterday.

In what Reuters blogger Felix Salmon described as a "formal, on-the-record joint interview" with Reuters and the FT, Dijsselbloem managed to suggest that the Cypriot bail-in was, in the words of Reuters' Luke Baker, "a new template for resolving eurozone banking problems".

Dijsselbloem said:

What we've done last night is what I call pushing back the risks… If there is a risk in a bank, our first question should be 'Okay, what are you in the bank going to do about that? What can you do to recapitalise yourself?'. If the bank can't do it, then we'll talk to the shareholders and the bondholders, we'll ask them to contribute in recapitalising the bank, and if necessary the uninsured deposit holders.

The tenor of Dijsselbloem's comments certainly suggests he meant them to be generally applied. And, on paper, it's a good ranking of priorities: first you get the bank, which caused the problem, to claw back as much as it can, then you talk to the shareholders and bondholders, who have knowingly taken a risk on the bank's solvency, and then, you talk to depositors. Because depositors are, after all, just people who have loaned money to the bank in a different form; and if they're uninsured, they've always known there was a risk of losing a lot if they bank went under.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of thing that you aren't supposed to say. Because the obvious outcome of explicitly stating that uninsured depositors are considered legitimate sources of funds for the recapitalization of their banks is that uninsured depositors start taking their money out of their banks, particularly in the other eurozone nations where the banks aren't yet out of trouble.

Bank runs are, generally, considered bad news. So it's somewhat unsurprising that shortly after Dijsselbloem's interview hit the press, he released a terse statement walking it back. You could smell the burning rubber from the speed of the u-turn; it reads, in full:

Cyprus is a specific case with exceptional challenges which required the bail-in measures we have agreed upon yesterday.

Macro-economic adjustment programmes are tailor-made to the situation of the country concerned and no models or templates are used.

It's hard to know quite what Dijsselbloem was thinking – although Paweł Morski presents an entertaining scenario of his own. But it becomes a bit clearer when you look at his background.

Dijsselbloem is the Netherlands' finance minister, a position he has only been in since 2012. His extraordinary position of power in the eurogroup comes from the standard rotating presidency, rather than any particular competency, and, although his electoral career goes back to 2000, his only other policy jobs have been the leader of a parliamentary inquiry on education reform in 2007 and a post at the agriculture ministry from 1996 to 2000.

The eurozone seems to alternate between the under-elected and the under-qualified, and it's not getting any better.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, with Christine Lagarde and Olli Rehn. Photograph: Getty Images

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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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.