China: "please don't talk about our screwed-up banking system"

Nobody panic. That's an order.

China really, really doesn't want people talking about its economic woes. The FT:

In a directive written last week and transmitted over the past few days to newspapers and television stations, local propaganda departments of the Communist party instructed reporters to stop “hyping the so-called cash crunch” and to spread the message that the country’s markets are well stocked with money.

Clearly there's no better way to get reporters talking about something than telling them not to, so here's a quick primer on the country's cash crunch.

Two weeks ago, money market rates in China rose rapidly to double digits, causing interbank lending to freeze up; the scene was alarmingly reminiscent of the Western credit crunch, and many feared that the country was about to have its own Lehman moment.

Fears were stoked by the central bank's refusal to intervene, apparently influenced by a political desire to "correct" the bank's behaviour. A scheduled auction the day after the rate spike would have provided the perfect opportunity to inject extra cash into the economy, but nothing happened.

Eventually, Beijing capitulated, and, on 25 June, committed to bailing out any and all failing banks, ensuring, at least for now, that the market interest rates will decline rapidly. That's not a long-term solution – that would involve boosting the liquidity of Chinese banks such that they aren't at risk of collapsing in the first place – but it preserves the banking system for the time being.

Still, the stock market did not respond happily to the turmoil. Falling ten per cent over a week, it dropped a further six per cent on the day the central bank promised action, although the announcement reversed the trend and it clawed back most of that day's losses. That seems to be the motivation for the media blackout, one of the first in the country to be targeted at the financial press. The FT reports some of the contents of the directive:

First, we must avoid malicious hype. Media should report and explain that our markets are guaranteed to have sufficient liquidity, and that our monetary policy is steady, not tight.

Second, media must strengthen their positive reporting. They should fully report the positive aspect of our current economic situation, bolstering the market’s confidence.

Third, media must positively guide public opinion. They should promptly and accurately explain in a positive manner the measures taken by and information from the central bank.

Translation: if anyone does a Robert Peston, heads will roll.

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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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