Behind the scenes in the Troika, madness reigns

"Cyprus is a template", said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, before hastily adding "Oh, wait, no it's not."

Overheard in a bar by our Brussels correspondent.

Well of course everybody’s been completely knackered with the overnight hoo-hah in Nicosia, trying to explain the facts of life to Nicos and chums, who’re clearly not happy anyway and extra jumpy when they hear a Russian accent. Herman had settled down behind his desk for a kip, Wolfgang was in a foul mood, and Mario’s not speaking to anyone at all, since he slammed down the phone on Tuesday saying he was sick of clearing up everybody else’s mess, did we have any idea how much Goldman would pay for a man of his talents, etc, etc.

So the eyes settled on this work-experience lad we’ve had doing a bit of this and that round the office. Not the sharpest tool in the box – main life experience to date was failing a university course in farming IIRC – but keen as mustard and had helped out with the photocopying and got Olli’s ipad hooked up to 3G so we were looking around for something for him to do longer-term. Simple enough, we thought. Talk to the press about the little fiasco in Cyprus, sad face about the sacrifices the Halloumi Massive are suffering, calm notes of triumph about our handling of the situation and how European Unity had prevailed.

A bit of background: things have been a little touchy with our German masters of late, what with the elections this year and Angela reading that biography of Bismarck. Now everyone knows it’s never going to happen, but the refusals to buy these lovely big chunks of Spanish and Italian bank equity without bothering about sovereign guarantees have been getting tetchier of late, so we’ve resigned ourselves to Operation Silence: nobody discusses how we’re going to fix the banks without anyone who has money being involved, Mario papers over the cracks and hopefully something comes up and the whole mess just goes away, because if push comes to shove, there’s not enough money in the pot to make everyone whole.

Unfortunately, what little Jeroen didn’t get was the importance of keeping your trap shut in Operation Silence. So he launches off on this tirade about how Cyprus was only the start , what happened to Russian money launderers today will be Spanish widows tomorrow, depositors of Europe line up to be sheared. And bugger the carefully-prepared script about “Cyprus is unique”, oh no he has to say it’s a template for the rest of Europe, so if you live in colder climes, invest in a sleeping bag, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time waiting for the ATM.

Of course this goes down like a cup of cold sick with the spivs in the markets, blood on the screens, Euro down the toilet, and within seconds we’ve got Francois on line one, Mariano on line two, and the rest of the switchboard jammed by Italians all claiming to be the next Prime Minister. So quickest reverse-ferret in history, very pointed two-liner on the website (would’ve been three lines, but managed to persuade Pierre that “little clog-wearing cretin” didn’t sound very ministerial). So job done for now, These Are Not The Bailout Templates You Were Looking For but lord help us if the cat ever does get out of the bag.

This piece was originally posted on Paweł's blog, and is reposted here with his permission.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of the European group of finance ministers. Photograph: Getty Images

Pawe? Morski is a fund manager who blogs at Some of it was true…

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.